Wrong treatment: The Chief Medical Officer must be careful about advice

 

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The Independent Online

Whether it is true that Alzheimer’s is a transmissible disease, the scientist whose job it is to determine that should not be influenced by the Chief Medical Officer, whose job it is to advise Government rather than influence the publication of research findings.

That much should be obvious good sense.

However, it seems not to have been followed by Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health. She, it is understood, approached the editor of a rival scientific journal, The Lancet, to discredit a study due to be published in the journal Nature into how Alzheimer’s could be caught in certain circumstances.

It is alleged that Dame Sally told Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, that the study was likely to result in a public reaction, and she wanted him to give her advice on how to handle the story when it emerged. That seems an odd place to seek such advice. The Department of Health has, after all, a substantial media operation well-versed in dealing with crises, and, indeed, would be in the front line of any attempts to calm nerves in the aftermath of publication.

Dame Sally was understandably concerned about how the public would take the news – with scientific and statistical understanding being generally set at low levels among much of the general public – and indeed how the media would present it. But she should not have gone to a rival publication to do so – and if she had asked the Department of Health’s experienced team of media minders they might well have told her as much.

It reads like a tale of misadventure more than anything; but the point remains that government advisers should leave media handling and scientific research to the professionals, and stick to the important business of offering sound medical advice.

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