Straight jabs

January 13th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, independent, magnets, mail, MMR | 2 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday January 13, 2005
The Guardian

People sometimes say to me, “I enjoy Bad Science, but often the jokes go right over my head, which makes me worry that I must be ignorant.” To which I always reply: “Good.” Over to reader Anne Pickard: “Unable to get a copy of our Saturday Guardian, my husband bought the Independent, which included a feature on ‘The 50 best spa treatments’. You may be interested to learn that in seventh place comes “Magnetic Massage”, where your torso “is shrouded in an infrared-heated blanket that warms up your kidneys to help speed up the detoxification process in your internal organs”. Brilliant. Is there anything else I can do to warm my kidneys up? “Do something unexpectedly kind for one person every day,” says the careers development section of www.telecomsjobsource.co.uk, “this tends to warm your kidneys.”

Meanwhile, it’s good to see some of you have been keeping an eye on the Daily Mail, particularly the story of a new “triple jab” as the paper called it. The vaccination they are talking about is the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine that the Joint Committee on Immunisation and Vaccination recommended at its last meeting. Most people had expected the Mail to get its knickers in a twist, but where did it pull the idea of a triple vaccine from? The pneumococcal vaccine currently licensed in the UK (given to children at high risk of complications from pneumococcal infection) is a 7-valent conjugate vaccine which protects against seven of the most common serotypes of pneumococcus. Shut up. Nobody complains about the Books section being too “Booky”. So anyway, it’s not a “triple” vaccine, that great Daily Mail bogeyman, because it only confers protection against one organism (Streptococcus pneumoniae), just like the Hib vaccine confers immunity to Haemophilius influenzae type B, and the conjugate Men C vaccine protects against Neisseria meningitidis.

Presumably, and this is the best explanation I can offer, the Mail journalist took the Department of Health’s suggestion that the vaccine would protect children against bacterial meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia, and assumed this meant three separate diseases, like MMR protects against measles, mumps and rubella. But bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia are three – potentially fatal – outcomes of a pneumococcal infection. As our spotter says: “It’s a good job they hadn’t picked up on the 7-valent bit. They would have got even more excited about a septuple vaccine.”


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2 Responses



  1. That Science Coverage We All Hate | Cosmic Variance said,

    September 8, 2005 at 10:58 pm

    [...] He goes on to discuss the important example of the MMR media-and-child-health disaster here, which is something you should look up (see his own writings on it here and here) if you’ve not heard about it. He continues: Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the “relative risk increase”, that makes the danger appear disproportionately large (www.badscience.net/?p=8). And last, in our brief taxonomy, is the media obsession with “new breakthroughs”: a more subtly destructive category of science story. It’s quite understandable that newspapers should feel it’s their job to write about new stuff. But in the aggregate, these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data. [...]

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