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Reports on medical research – sifting the wheat from the chaff

Published : Thursday February 9, 2012 | Posted in : General Health

There have been a few reports in the media about the transference rate of HIV and more recently a report about the likelihood that one in 100 people might be naturally resistant to hepatitis, leprosy, malaria and HIV. However, I can’t help wonder whether these reports are potentially dangerous. Or should we simply view them as the stepping stones of research that will eventually be able to provide us with more effective treatments and vaccines?

Bold claims

Malaria, hepatitis, HIV, leprosy and malaria are all extremely serious diseases; however research has shown that some people may be naturally able to resist these conditions because of a particular inherited gene. However, when one reads the study, the original research was into anthrax toxin sensitivity and the fact that some people are able to resist the pathogen, while others are almost overly sensitive to it. According to scientists, this is simply an indication that 1% of these people could potentially have a naturally high resistance to these conditions.

Potentially spreading incorrect information

I have no issue with the fact that this kind of research is being conducted, as I understand that that’s how science works. Each new discovery happens off the back of another, which means that all kinds of research has value to some degree. However, I do have an issue with the research or rather reports on the research potentially sending out an incorrect message. It’s not that I don’t think that people aren’t able distinguish between misleading information, but it’s always possible for incorrect information to be taken up into cultural mythology and be spread around and eventually seem like the truth. This can easily happen, just look at the controversial post-sex-shower-gate incident in South Africa, when it was claimed that as long as you showered after sex with a HIV positive person you weren’t likely to get it.

Understanding medical research

The charity Sense About Science specialises in helping people understand research and were incredibly helpful when I asked them for tips on how we should interpret news reports on medical research. They suggest in one of their manuals ‘I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it’ that we consider whether the research has been published in a medical journal and undergone a peer review and whether independent research has been conducted on the topic. They also suggest that you approach any kind of new research with caution and if you are really in doubt contact a charity related to the topic or research or even the NHS, as they could have the specialist knowledge to verify whether the research is worth paying any kind of attention to or not.

More careful reporting

I believe that the media should be more careful with how they report information, in particular medical information, to avoid stigmas and, above all, serious misconceptions that could endanger lives. It would be fantastic to be able to believe everything we read, and I must confess, with all the medical research journals and articles I read, it’s difficult not to get swept along by the excitement of a new medical discovery, but I’ve learned now that for every kind or research proving one thing there is likely to be some kind of criticism.

Whether a person is immune or resistant to these infections doesn’t really matter at this point, as there is no way for the general public to ascertain where that is the case for themselves, which is why it’s important that we still look after ourselves and take all the necessary precautions to protect ourselves against exposure. Wouldn’t it be more positive if the media focussed on aspects that would help us breed a culture of self-respect and common-sense rather than perpetuating the idea that we are simply at the mercy of our circumstances?

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