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Miracle cures and killer drugs

Insight into how the media has reported on developments in the pharmaceutical industry

Newspaper headline saying 'flu pandemic' beside a syringeHow our industry is perceived and reported on by general media channels in print and online is of great importance, because the news and articles published have the power to make or break both products and reputations. In this new regular feature, John Clare investigates recent coverage of the industry to help readers gain a clearer understanding of how the media operates and, hence, the best ways to get accurate reporting on key issues.

In the media, there are two main classes of pharmaceutical product: miracle cures and killer drugs. In reality, of course, most of them are neither, which is why much reporting includes at least an element of selectivity, misconception or exaggeration. However, it's not always the fault of the media alone. This article considers publicity around an apparent wonder drug that can cure lung cancer and appears to have no side-effects, two professors who fanned the flames of hype, and the 15 minutes of fame gained by a previously anonymous researcher.  

Let's start with a widely-reported story about cancer research. On November 11, millions of newspaper readers were greeted with headlines including:

• "New lung cancer wonder drug offers cure hope for deadliest form of disease" – Daily Mail
• "Deadliest lung cancer breakthrough. A new pill that could cure one of the most lethal forms of cancer is being developed by scientists" - Daily Telegraph
• "Drug 'shrinks lung cancer tumour'. Scientists have identified a drug, which may offer hope to patients with a particularly lethal form of lung cancer." – BBC News website

The Daily Telegraph's reporting was typical: British researchers have found that a drug destroys tumours in a form of inoperable lung cancer that kills more than nine out of ten sufferers. The treatment works by blocking the growth of the cancer cells and eventually causing them to self-destruct. In more than 50 per cent of the trials the treatment, which appears to have no side-effects, killed all traces of the disease.

It's only when we reach paragraph 11 of the Daily Telegraph story that we're given a crucial fact: the research was not conducted on people, but on laboratory mice. Other newspapers were more upfront about this, but the clear impression was of a breakthrough treatment for lung cancer – a sort of 'hype over experience.'

There was another notable example of the 'miracle cure' standpoint in the Independent, which ran this story: "Cancer: shock breakthrough. Patients with inoperable prostate disease recover after single dose of drug."

The item reported that two patients out of 45 receiving an experimental compound had shown such a dramatic improvement that they were removed from the study so that they could undergo curative surgery.

The problem with this kind of reporting is not that it's inaccurate, but that it's premature. The headlines establish hope, and the copy knocks it down. The stories all appeared under the by-lines of very experienced, respected health correspondents.

So why would they rush into print with such tenuous tales – particularly when your own PR agencies can't get any journalist interested in your 'real' breakthroughs?

There are several factors. The headlines are written by sub-editors and layout people who have little knowledge of the way drugs are developed, and have had no previous contact with the story. 

Crucially, both of these stories concerned research at world-leading institutions. They contained quotes from the lead researchers, which helped to increase the hype. The professor leading the lung cancer research was quoted as saying: "We're all very excited about it." The man leading the prostate cancer research said the recovery "was comparable to the first pilot breaking the sound barrier."

The lesson: be careful what you say. You only have yourself to blame if you say things like that and find yourself filed under 'miracle cures.'    

Watchdog or scaremonger?
Stories of alleged drug side-effects are the stock in trade of many journalists, and the media's watchdog role has been developed and refined over centuries. Unfortunately, some sections of the media show an unhealthy haste to jump to conclusions. The tragic death of 14-year-old Natalie Morton days after being vaccinated against HPV, the virus which leads to cervical cancer, is a case in point. We now know that she did not die of a reaction to Cervarix, but of a previously undiagnosed tumour. Much UK media coverage was balanced, but this was not the case in the Daily Mail.

Faced with the choice of reassuring the paper's six million (mostly female) readers, based on a chorus of experts saying the vaccine was safe, or scaring them with a year-old quote from a previously unknown researcher, the paper came up with a masterpiece of mixed messages and managed to ride both horses at once, while clearly backing the scaremongers.

In the highly charged atmosphere following Natalie's death, the paper revived a story from a researcher at the University of Missouri-Kansas who claimed the jab's benefits had been "exaggerated." This gave the impression that she was questioning the vaccine's safety, which was quite a claim, given the circumstances.

Close reading
In fact, close reading revealed that she was saying the benefits might not last as long as claimed, and re-vaccination may be necessary further down the line. The researcher, Dr Diane Harper, made the scaremongers' job easier by claiming the vaccine programme was "a public health experiment." Again, an example of ill-advised words and ill-advised reporting.

"Man wins lottery after flu jab."

Savour the headline above, because you'll never see it in a newspaper. It came from Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. As he pointed out, it has as much scientific validity as many of the headlines we do read about alleged serious side-effects of drugs and vaccines, in particular recent ones about the H1N1 flu vaccine. The only link is that one event (serious illness or lottery win) happened after another (flu vaccination). The events share only what academics call 'a temporal association,' which is another phrase guaranteed to confuse non-specialists.

Professor Spiegelhalter featured in an excellent piece in the Daily Telegraph commenting on US-based research into the preconceptions of risk among members of the public. The problem is that the media, and the public, often put two events together and say there must be a causal link. Not so, say the authors of the paper, which appeared in The Lancet then in mainstream papers including the Telegraph and the Guardian. It's often just a coincidence. But confusing cause and coincidence can have a serious impact on the take-up of a national vaccination campaign, and on the health of the rest of us.

We saw this in the UK in the furore over the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism or Crohn's Disease. It is now almost unanimously accepted by medics, researchers and regulators that the only link was that the vaccination occurred before the disease diagnosis, which is another temporal association. We are now seeing reports of illness, sometimes serious, after H1N1 vaccination. Again, some sections of the media are confusing cause and coincidence. We will soon see if this affects take-up of the vaccination. 

Out of context
Quoting statistics out of context, also known as 'the truth but not the whole truth,' is another feature of some reporting about the pharma industry. Take this example from the Mail on Sunday: "Swine flu jab link to killer nerve disease: leaked letter reveals concern of neurologists over 25 deaths in America."

The story concerned a letter sent to neurologists around the country and 'leaked' to the newspaper (journalists learn on day one in the job that a leaked letter has more news value than a press release). The letter warned the physicians to be on the alert for cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which can be fatal in rare cases, and, according to the story, could be triggered by the vaccine. It quoted a previous US swine flu vaccination campaign in 1976, involving a different vaccine to the one used today. During that campaign, 500 people who had been vaccinated developed GBS, and 25 died out of 40 million vaccinated. The fact that multiple trials since then have established no proven causal link between that vaccine and the cases of GBS was not included.

Many newspapers have carried passing references to the fact that the swine flu jabs "have not gone through the normal safety tests," implying that the industry has cut corners in the pursuit of profit. Those same newspapers would be quick to criticise 'big pharma' if there had been a delay in producing the vaccine. This practice is called having your cake and eating it.

The Author
John Clare is the founder and chief executive of LionsDen Communications
He is a former Daily Mail and ITN journalist, and a published author.

To comment on this article, email

6th January 2010


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