Letter: Foolish interpretation of BSE/CJD link

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The Independent Online
Sir: It is important that a sensible public policy will control the increase in the number of new young cases of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD). It seems that in this country the proper relationship between scientific evidence and responsible public health policy is confused by our politicians.

To have interpreted uncertain scientific evidence systematically at the most optimistic end of a wide plausible spectrum, can be expected to lead to public health crises more often than would a more cautious view. To commit yourself to that interpretation, ignoring the uncertainties, is foolish. It is convenient, but dishonest, to cite this one interpretation as science, and everything else as not science. Thus our Government's interpretation of the evidence which might link mad cow disease to CJD, and hence its policy, has now led directly to a major crisis for the domestic beef industry.

Since our European, and other, partners have no reason at all to be so optimistic, our Government, normally in favour of free choice based on evidence in the market place, should be applauding their discrimination and caution. The dominant political constraints are just different, and this should be acknowledged.

The Government seems to view important and complex matters of public health from too simplistic an understanding of both the biological and social science, while trying to downplay dominant political influences on their own assessment. But we have to rely on Government to make dispassionate and sensible public health policy on our behalf.

In this instance so much is unknown that it is essential to take proper account of these true uncertainties, and their implications. It is misleading to pretend that we know that no dangerous contaminated products have entered the food chain recently.

What we do know is that more appropriate action would have been inconvenient, expensive and unpopular. The Government should have ensured that the regulations on meat processing were rigorously enforced, and should have acknowledged earlier than it did the possibility of a link between BSE and CJD.

Now the necessary measures will be even more difficult and could therefore be botched again.

We must now insist on proper responsibility for this aspect of public health from this government. It cannot be allowed to continue to hide behind non existent scientific certainties any longer.

Klim McPherson

Professor of Public Health


London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

London WC1