Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Sunday, June 19, 2005

'Scaremongering' Lancet accused of causing harm to health and wasting millions

June 18, 2005

'Scaremongering' Lancet accused of causing harm to health and wasting millions
By Mark Henderson

Nobel prizewinners in the Royal Society attack on editor over publication of flawed research

BRITAIN’S premier medical journal is endangering public health by publishing unfounded scare stories, 30 of the country’s leading scientists say today.

Poor editorial judgment at The Lancet has fuelled panic over issues such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, hormone replacement therapy and genetically modified (GM) crops, the eminent medical researchers charge in a letter that the journal has refused to publish.
The signatories, thirty fellows of the Royal Society, two of whom are Nobel laureates, accuse it of favouring “desperate headline-seeking” over sound science, to the detriment of public health. “Under the editorship of Richard Horton, the publication of badly conducted and poorly refereed scare stories has had devastating consequences for individual and public health, in the UK and abroad, and carried a high economic cost,” they say.

The letter, seen by The Times, responds to a Lancet editorial last month that criticised the Royal Society as a “shrill and superficial cheerleader for British science” that no longer makes major contributions to medicine.

Fellows of the national science academy were outraged by the attack, which they saw as a cheap shot from a journal with a record of publishing research with serious flaws. Last year, The Lancet partially retracted the 1998 study led by Andrew Wakefield that triggered the MMR vaccine scare. Dr Horton admitted the study was “entirely flawed”. Many scientists believe the paper should have been rejected by the journal’s referees.

It has also been criticised for publishing research by Arpad Pusztai that claimed to show that GM potatoes produced worrying biological changes in rats. A Royal Society committee found it was based on poorly conducted experiments.

The letter suggests that the decision to publish such research stemmed from a desire to attract headlines and not from balanced assessment of the best evidence. “The remarkably poor editorial judgment responsible for this policy is reflected again in the present egregious, error-strewn and wholly unwarranted attack on the Royal Society,” it said.

Professor Mark Pepys, of the Royal Free Hospital, London, who drafted the letter, said: “The Pusztai and MMR papers are the two most serious examples. The MMR study was not well reviewed — it was a disgracefully bad piece of work and the decision to publish it was clearly scaremongering.

“It has had terrible effects: children have died of measles, mumps is now out there, it has ruined the vaccination programme for MMR and cost the British taxpayer millions to repair the damage.” Other signatories include Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Aaron Klug, who have won Nobel prizes for their work, Sir Walter Bodmer, one of the world’s leading geneticists, and the neuroscientist Dame Nancy Rothwell.

Sir Walter said: “At the very least, people in glass houses should not throw stones. I have given up taking The Lancet, which I used to read regularly.”

Dr Horton said the journal had decided not to publish the letter as it had accepted similar ones from Lord May of Oxford, the President of the Royal Society, and Professor David Weatherall, chairman of a committee named in the editorial.

He said that it was part of The Lancet’s job to scrutinise institutions such as the Royal Society, and defended his journal’s record and integrity. “I can’t see why trying to generate a debate about the role of the Royal Society should have been received with such outright hostility,” he said.

“I can’t believe the people who have signed this letter have looked into the contribution of The Lancet to public health in any detail, or appreciate the breadth of what we have achieved. I find these suggestions insulting to those scientists around the world who have chosen to publish in the journal.”

The MMR and GM papers have not been the only sources of controversy during Dr Horton’s eight-year editorship of The Lancet. In 2003 Professor David Purdie, of Hull-York Medical School, a leading authority on HRT, criticised a Lancet study suggesting that the treatment could double the risk of breast cancer as “unbalanced and inflammatory”.

An accompanying editorial that urged women to stop taking HRT in light of evidence about its health risks caused further outrage among doctors, who said that it would dissuade thousands from taking a medication with proven benefits.

Later that year Dr Horton called on the Government to ban all tobacco smoking, a move ridiculed by the Royal College of Physicians and even by the anti-smoking group ASH. They felt the extreme tone would undermine efforts to secure a ban in public places, which has wide support in the medical community.

The journal was also criticised last year for, on the eve of the US presidential election, publishing a statistical study estimating the death toll from the Iraq war at 100,000.

Dr Horton has been praised widely, however, for the high profile his journal has given to health issues in the developing world, particularly those concerning children.

He has also won plaudits for his scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry, though his stance has made enemies. The Lancet has been fiercely critical of drug companies that cover up tests revealing side-effects or sponsor doctors’ attendances at conferences.