“The scientist that changed the world - Hwang Woo-Suk” – poster appearing on Korean public transport during Hwang’s period of popularity. Saunders R, Savulescu J J Med Ethics 2008;34:214-221
''We will be sitting here with the best scientists in the world watching things on television,'‘ Dr. Jose B. Cibelli, professor of animal biotechnology at Michigan State University. Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science: ''I think there is no question that the degree of restriction imposed now on stem cell research in the U.S. has in fact given other nations some significant advantages.'' ''Already many biologists not only from America but the Asian countries have made a visit to his lab,'' Dr. Moon said of Dr. Hwang's lab at the news conference. ''He says they call it 'fantastic,' 'unbelievable,' 'a cloning academy.' ''
PD Notebook: Investigative TV show broadcast by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, Korea.
The role of journalism 1 June 2005 PD Notebook receives an e mail from one of the researchers on Hwang’s team saying his conscience is troubled, and asking PD Notebook to contact him Hak Soo Han a producer meets him that night and is told that the eggs used for the researchers had come from some women on the research team Also, he thought the 11 stem cell lines could not have been produced by Hwang’s team
Han is not really convinced…after all the paper was published by Science, but decides to look into it anyway. Recruits 3 scientists as consultants to help them Found two researchers who had worked with Hwang to help
Interviews co author’s of the 2005 paper, and find that many of them had not seen the cloned stem cells; some experiments which should have been conducted did not seem to have been conducted Han flies to Pittsburgh to meet a Korean co- author of the paper, and the scientist who was responsible for growing the stem cells and tricks him into confessing
Public opinion in Korea pro Hwang, anti PD Notebook
PD notebook broadcast one story about some women being paid to provide eggs, and others who felt they were forced to donate But their next story was pulled after a rival TV company interviewed the researcher in Pittsburgh, who said that he had been tricked by PD Notebook and forced to confess… Public outrage, advertisers pull out of the show. Show is scrapped by MBC TV
Other news organizations do not follow up because 1. The paper was published in Science “I thought it was utterly ridiculous that a thesis already carried in Science needed to be examined by another specialist, especially by the press [such as MBC’s PD-Notebook]” “Even when PD-Notebook became skeptical of the paper, the other media didn’t dare challenge both an internationally respected refereed journal and a star scientist.”
2. Difficult to find other experts to either confirm or back up the charges One Korean reporter e-mailed 10 non-Korean scientists requesting they verify the paper’s findings, but received only two replies containing no useful information. One reporter was suspicious, but “Though I learned there was the possibility of a DNA mismatch from my sources, I couldn’t write a story based on such an impression.”
3.Personal trust in Hwang and his status as a hero Many of the reporters who had met him knew him to be very approachable, open, kind etc. could not believe he would do this Hwang was also a national hero
4. Lack of experience and knowledge in reporting science Very few reporters had actually read the paper: the few who had were long time science reporters, or had background in medicine/biology Even if they had, it was impossible to verify details of the paper
Meanwhile, other researchers post on bulletin boards confirming the fraud Seoul National University holds an inquiry, and finds that the studies were fraudulent
Peer review does not prevent fraud 2005 paper was first sent by Science to two members of Board of Reviewing editors for a preliminary review—they look for “novelty, originality”, but do not review data Once they approved, the paper was sent to 3 stem cell scientists for review. They were given one week These reviewers looked at the data- looked at the data for genetic markers and DNA “fingerprints” of the stem cells
“You look at data, but do not assume it is fraud” Journals, like newspapers, also want scoops- want to publish exciting, trend setting studies
The role of journalism Investigative journalism requires hard painstaking work Understanding the science and the data- PDF notebook hired outside scientists to help Having good contacts and sources Do not trust your sources either- everything must be independently confirmed and verified
The lead author Andrew Wakefield,a gastro-enterologist at the Royal Free Hospital in London who had been researching the link between MMR vaccine and bowel diseases in children
Wakefield held a press conference once the paper was published He said that children’s behaviour has changed after receiving their MMR injections Suggested that MMR should be stopped, and that instead children should receive three separate vaccinations. “It’s a moral issue with me…If there are children who are damaged by these preventive measures they have to be listened to investigated and treated…”
Also at the press conference The dean of the Royal Free Hospital, Arie Zuckerman, was also at the press conference, but was critical of his colleague, and said “this remains a hypothesis” and more evidence was required. Others warned of the dangers that would arise if parents stopped giving their children MMR
A major public controversy arises Wakefield maintained that MMR should be treated with caution, and that vaccine manufacturers, public health authorities have a vested interest in not having a debate on this Several parents of children who developed autism back Wakefield, and form a pressure group, accusing the authorities of a cover up. Figures show a dramatic rise in autism in the UK and USA in autism since the late 1980s when MMR was introduced
This is a tough story to cover You have powerful, persuasive voices on both sides- Hints that vaccine money, and government interference are putting people’s health at risk There were also other elements…
Leo Blair…. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s youngest son, Leo was due to have his MMR injection There was intense speculation about what his parents would do They refused to comment on it, saying it was a private matter
A lot of media coverage focussed on parental anxieties “Ministers continue to insist the MMR jab which some doctors have linked to autism is the best way of protecting children” (ITV News, 5th Feb, 2002). “Although health chiefs insist that the MMR vaccine is safe, many parents have been put off by uncertainty over possible links to autism and bowel disorders” (Daily Mail, 5th Feb, 2002). “The government has mounted campaigns to persuade parents the MMR jab is safe after some research linked it to autism and bowel disorders in children” (The Sunday Times, 28th April, 2002).
Parents of autistic children came forward with dramatic, heart rending stories Jackie Fletcher recounted her son was normal until the age of 13 months, when he received his MMR Ten days later he went into a huge fit…Now at age 10, he has autistic traits and a mental age of 14 months
A report from the Daily Mail “A three year old boy was given the MMR injection without his parents consent, it was revealed yesterday. Michael Whitefield’s mother had paid for him to have separate injections for measles, mumps and rubella at a private clinic because of her concerns over the triple jab. But her son was given the controversial vaccination by mistake by a nurse. MMR has been linked to autism and bowel disease, leading to a dramatic fall in uptake.”
Weaknesses of coverage Almost all the scientific evidence ( except for Wakefield’s own work) did not find any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, since journalists are trained to be “balanced”, both sides were given equal coverage, as if there was a serious debate with equal evidence on both sides. Tendency to sensationalise In the UK, after BSE, there has been a lot of scepticism about the competence of the health authorities, and this influenced coverage Most reporters had not read the research on which they were basing news stories.
Japanese study In Japan, MMR vaccination was introduced in 1989, and withdrawn in 1993, following safety concerns. Instead, separate vaccines were introduced Comparison between children who received MMR and children who received separate vaccines, showed a rising trend in autism that continued even after MMR was withdrawn- ie MMR could not be the cause of the rising trend. (Honda et al, No Effect of MMR Withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2005)
Other studies In Denmark, 537,303 children were studied, 82 percent of whom had received MMR, and 18 percent who had not. Found similar risk of autism between vaccinated and unvaccinated children ( Madsen et al, A Population Based Study of Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccination and Autism, New England Journal of Medicine Nov. 2002)
There will always be sceptical voices “The debate about MMR-autism rages on and the Danish study is but another weak link in the chain promoted by those who, it appears, would vaccinate and be damned…the Danish study does nothing to alter my view that MMR is probably the cause of autism..”John P Hepponstall, Director, Morley Acupuncutre Clinic and Alternate Therapy Centre
In the meanwhile, immunisation has fallen In 1995-96, 96% of children had been immunised March 2004, only 80% of two year olds had been immunised Loss of herd immunity- danger of outbreaks
Lessons See whether the findings have been published, or whether they are just claims Read the published paper- what exactly does it say, what are the findings and weaknesses of the study? Distinguish between studies that claim an association between two things, and those that claim a causal relationship Learn to evaluate all the different voices and opinions that you will hear