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Accuracy is the key element of a public health agenda

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Last Saturday in the Daily Mirror, TV presenter and columnist Fiona Phillips revealed she had turned down a government post as public health minister two years ago. Now, while one can only respect Ms Phillips’ decision, you can’t help wondering how close we came to the government to end all governments.

With Ms Phillips taking care of public health, we could have given Eamonn Holmes education, Michael Fish the Treasury and made that nice Lorraine Kelly minister of defence. And a dusted down Roland Rat could have been Prime Minister.

It isn’t hard to imagine a group of civil servants huddled round the Battenberg trying to figure out how they can get the press to write about public health instead of Big Brother. Hiring England footballers to highlight cancer risks makes sense, getting Joanna Lumley to fight your corner is clearly the best way to change stupid policies and having celebrity patrons of charities in need of money is a given. But might offering government posts to popular TV presenters be a step too far?

At the bottom of Ms Phillips’ page she makes a ‘voice in the wilderness’ claim that the MMR vaccine is not safe. Why does she think this? Well because some parents have told her. She is moved by their stories and who wouldn’t be? Oddly enough plenty of parents of children with a diagnosis of autism have told me there is absolutely no link between autism and MMR. They remain pro MMR and have given subsequent children the vaccine. They believe that in inventing a link people were distracted from proper research into causes of autism for too long and they fear the public health consequences of a low uptake of MMR.

‘I’ve worked with nurses who believe in everything from witchcraft to time travel but they know where the belief has to stop and the evidence base begins’

So which anecdote is the most helpful to our public health agenda? That’s right, neither. Both tell us a lot about people, pain and love but neither tells us much about MMR. Thankfully we have a whole load of research that does that for us. Research that tells us MMR is safe. But sometimes no amount of research is enough. We could commission a whole bunch of randomised controlled trials to seek out the tooth fairy. The research may demonstrate that the tooth fairy does not exist but there will be plenty of people -many of them some way older than six - who will continue to believe in Twinkle and more importantly believe that the suppression of her existence is some sort of government plot and that they alone are in possession of a truth.

Which is fine. Believe what you like I say, goodness knows lots of nurses do. I’ve worked with nurses who believe in everything from witchcraft to time travel but they usually know where the belief has to stop and the evidence base begins.
With the best will in the world a sympathy for people needs to be harnessed if it is to touch the world. That’s why if the government is looking for celebrity public health ministers to get the message across, I’d suggest they get some nurses in there too to make sure the message is an accurate one.

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