Letter: Trust science not maverick scientists

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The Independent Online
Letter: Trust science not maverick


GEOFFREY LEAN'S general thesis about governments' handling of health scares such as BSE ("Deadly peril in our culture of denial", 24 March) is selective and doesn't consider the alternative.

We need a culture that bases decisions on public health and safety on the best available evidence. The public, of course, wants everything in "black and white" and immediate action taken, even if appropriate information isn't available. Under this pressure a culture of denial can develop. But would a culture of acceptance in which we reacted immediately, and expensively, to every scare be better?

In January 1976 scientists in the US rightly raised the possibility that cases of influenza in soldiers in Fort Dix could indicate that an epidemic might be coming. There was some evidence that it might be the dreaded Swine Flu, which killed millions after the First World War. By March the cautious appraisal had been elevated to a certainty. President Ford appeared on television begging the population to get vaccinated. The pharmaceutical industry couldn't guarantee a safe, effective vaccine in the time available and only agreed to make one if indemnified by the government. In the event there was no epidemic, but more than 4,000 people filed claims against the government because of side-effects of the vaccine. (Guillan-Barre Syndrome, which affects the nervous system, was associated with its use. More than 5 per cent of sufferers died.) Quite apart from the unnecessary deaths, the cost must have been more than pounds 170m - a few billion at today's values.

What if the UK had reacted in a similar way to some recent health scares and fads - for instance the idea that vitamins promote intelligence? Following the thinking of some "mavericks" we could have fed children potentially toxic doses of vitamins. So "put not thy trust in mavericks" - they get it wrong more often than they get it right.

Dr Ron Gardner

Northwich, Cheshire