“Cancer girl cured by HIV virus” published by the Daily mail 11th December 2012. Like a dodgy advert for a pay day loan, headlines are often not what they seem.
Skim reading my way through a paper an article catches my eye “Scientist accused of playing God after creating artificial life” followed closely by “but could it wipe out humanity?”
Of all the possible outcomes of the former sentence, the latter conclusion is not by any stretch of the imagination an outcome neither I nor any human being with a functioning nervous system would come to. That is of course if firstly you had read the article; doubtful, and secondly, read it with shall we say a metaphorical shovel of salt; unlikely. But because most people believe what they read in various magazines and papers a simple misconstrued headline can lead to a mass hysteria not seen since the ending of breaking bad.
Take the MMR vaccine as an example; introduced in 1988 this marvel of immunology has prevented children from catching measles, mumps and rubella ever since its inception. Until that is, an already controversial paper suggested a link between autism and the vaccine. Instantly hijacked by the media, a rather drunk on power and celebrity Andrew Wakefield (producer of the paper) came out and pronounced: “I call for a suspension of the triple MMR vaccine until more research could be done”.
Putting on my best Ron Burgundy voice, ‘Boy that escalated quickly’ would be an understatement considering the paper found no casual connection between the vaccine and Autism.
Nonetheless, the anti-vaccine frenzy snowballed and with it the credibility of the paper. As a result, when it reached the bottom of the proverbial hill it climaxed in a wave of public rejection. Uptake for the vaccine dropped by 80% which lead to a mumps outbreak of epidemic levels and the first death by measles in almost 14 years.
This, however, like any good Disney film has an averagely tolerable ending; Andrew Wakefield was eventually outed as a fraud and now resides in America where he can practice his witchcraft with impunity. Unfortunately for us, shit storms come and go but they leave an awfully horrid mess behind; the public’s opinion has changed very little and more than 10 years on uptake levels of MMR vaccine are still disgracefully low.
Which begs the question, should we let the pernicious attitudes of the few skew opinions of the general public? Should headlines be more informative? Should we stop being so lazy and read articles front to back or should we just let those creative totems (scientific journalists) have their artistic license cake and eat it?
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