More madness


Mediawatch’s review [1] of coverage of the relationship between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or ‘mad cow disease’) and human Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) coincided with disclosure of 10 new, suspicious CJD cases in the UK. The people affected were much younger than normal for CJD and had significantly different pathology. The UK Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) advised the government that the most likely — but by no means certain — explanation was exposure to the agent responsible for BSE. Thought to be a prion, the agent probably first affected cows when their feedstuffs contained tissues from sheep with scrapie, before such feedstuffs were banned in 1989. The intense furore that followed the SEAC’s announcement showed some sections of the media, particularly television, at their worst. As before, however, many print journalists tackled a complex issue with considerable skill. And, again, politicians surpassed themselves in failing to make the all-important distinction between expert advice and their own responsibilities to public health and the agricultural industry. On the credit side, broadsheet newspapers allocated many pages to meticulous dissections of what is, and is not, known about the two (or three?) diseases. On 21 March, for example, the Independent carried (in addition to an editorial, a political commentary and readers’ letters) 14 pieces on different aspects of the story — a total of some 9 000 words. All the articles were written against pressing deadlines the previous day, and covered, inter alia, the SEAC’s findings and the government’s response, evidence for the new type of CJD, descriptions of individual patients, epidemiology of CJD and BSE, European reactions and the positions of organizations representing farmers, consumers and the food industry. Embedded within such extensive reportage were careful explanations of several levels of uncertainty in the evidence, and discussions of risk assessment. Scientists prone to criticise the media might ponder the contrast between an accomplishment of this sort and the more leisurely task of honing a research paper over many weeks. The tabloid press — often unjustly maligned by those who confuse simplicity with inaccuracy — performed less creditably on this occasion. Consider the Daily Mirror of 21 March. Under the headline “THE PROOF” and a photograph of a seriously ill woman thought to be one of the 10 new cases of CJD/BSE, the paper announced unambiguously: “Mad Cow Disease killed mum Michelle Bowen. It may kill her son Tony and now experts say it could kill 500 000 of YOU.”

DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(09)00429-1

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@article{Dixon1996MoreM, title={More madness}, author={Bernard Dixon}, journal={Current Biology}, year={1996}, volume={6} }