Dr. Paul Offit: 'Journalism Jail' For False Equivalence In Medical Reporting

Mar 29 2014, 7:32pm CDT | by

DENVER, CO – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia chief of infectious diseases, pediatrician, vaccine developer and author, Dr. Paul W. Offit, called on broadcast and print reporters to avoid the “he-said, she-said reporting” that perpetuates false controversies in science and medicine.

Offit’s comments came today in his keynote address at Health Journalism 2014, this year’s annual meeting of the Association for Health Care Journalists.

In his discussion of some continued–and faulty–reporting on an association between childhood vaccines and the incidence of autism, Offit said, “It’s easy to scare people. It’s harder to un-scare them.” His view is that vaccination rates will only increase because of outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough).

Who’s an “expert?”

Offit posed the question to journalists of what criteria establishes someone as an expert worthy of serving as a valid source or commenter on issues of health. On one hand, reporters and producers should held accountable for soliciting celebrities lacking qualifications in science and medicine whose unqualified opinions will be broadcast to millions or read by hundreds of thousands.

For example, Offit asked rhetorically why he has had to comment on what people like Donald Trump or Kristin Cavaliari think about autism and vaccines.

But he notes that his authority as a highly-trained and experienced professional should not be the only consideration.

“They don’t know the data,” said Offit. “What I say, what others say doesn’t matter. Where is the data?”

Offit added that he’s troubled by so-called journalistic “balance” when the contentions of only one side is supported by science. He called instead for “perspective” in reporting.

For example, he fully acknowledges that vaccines given to tens of millions of people do indeed cause side effects, and even fatalities, but that these events are extremely rare. But Offit noted that these side effects have absolutely nothing to do with causes invoked by many antivaccination activists.

Offit’s advice to journalists who have deadline pressures that preclude them from digging deeply into the medical literature is not to do the story at all.

Penalty box for poor health care reporting

In the Q&A that followed the talk, managing editor of The Daily Briefing and Forbes contributor, Dan Diamond, asked Offit if journalists write stories about “debate” on vaccines– and people die from not getting vaccinated–are we party to murder.

Offit responded with the idea that we should have “journalism jail” for such individuals.

Although that kicker brought some laughter among the audience, Offit later added more solemnly, “You work in a hospital and you watch children die from preventable disease–it makes you passionate.”

Vaccine costs and access/>/>

Award-winning, New York Times reporter, Elisabeth Rosenthal, asked Offit about an issue that should certainly be discussed with regard to vaccines: Shouldn’t we be reporting more on their costs, particularly the human papillomavirus vaccines, as a factor in access to this preventive medicine and suboptimal vaccination rates?

In this case, such discussion centers around whether a vaccine or drug manufacturer should be able to charge an appropriate price for the costs of developing and marketing a product that needs only to be given once per patient or, at most, a few times. In terms of profit margins, Offit called vaccines the “stepsister” of the pharmaceutical industry.

Profitability of vaccines is, however, open to much discussion. Offit himself is best known for his work in the 1980s that led to the development of a rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq®, licensed to Merck in 1992 by CHOP and The Wistar Institute. In 2008, CHOP sold their worldwide rights to royalties from the vaccine for $182 million. Offit’s personal or laboratory share has never been disclosed publicly but typical intellectual property agreements in academic research allow for the inventors to share in up to 25% of institutional income.

Regardless, vaccine costs are less than the collective costs–financially and in terms of human suffering–of treating a disease they’re intended to prevent (or reduce severity if still contracted).

The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases noted in 2009 that over half a million infants and young children worldwide were dying of rotavirus gastroenteritis each year. In the U.S., prior to the introduction of rotatvirus vaccines, rotavirus caused more than 400,000 physician visits, more than 200,000 emergency department visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, 20 to 70 childhood deaths, and direct and indirect costs in excess of $1 billion.

The innovation and risks to develop a product that prevents such negative impact is certainly deserving of an appropriate return on investment, but access to such vaccines remains an issue that must be addressed.

AHCJ member discussion from the remainder of Offit’s talk can be viewed by searching the #AHCJ14 Twitter hashtag beginning around 2:45 pm EDT/12:45 pm MDT.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 
 

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