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Presentation 1B1. The Public's Understanding of Health Statistics: The Case of Congenital Anomalies

Beverley Botting (UK)


Presentation Abstract

The public is continually faced with a variety of health related crises, for example, suspected adverse reactions to an environmental hazard, or food safety. These may be exacerbated by coverage in the mass media. How health professionals react to these challenges has important health, economic and political implications, as for example in Europe over Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy/Creuzfeldt Jakob Disease. Thus it is important to carefully consider both the information and the presentation of health messages to the concerned public, governmental bodies, scientists and journalists.

The paper will discuss the impact of public concern and media reporting on congenital anomalies research, on affected families and on the general public. It will consider the needs of parents, support groups and the media when faced with such information, and the important role of congenital anomaly registers when working with these groups.
Two descriptive examples will be presented to illustrate different approaches to facing public health concerns. It will discuss both the experience of coping with the mass media response to the publication of the findings of an epidemiological study of the risk of congenital anomalies associated with living near hazardous toxic waste sites. In contrast, it will also focus on a media generated alarm when four children with transverse limb reduction defects (LRD) were born in the same town in England. In this latter example, the only common characteristic identified by the mothers was that they had swum in the sea during pregnancy. This raised the possibility that an environmental factor associated with living near to the coast and swimming in the sea might be implicated for this anomaly. This received local, national and international media interest.

Following publication of report on the study of the risk of congenital anomalies associated with living near hazardous toxic waste sites, there were three consecutive waves of media response driven by journalistic, political and professional perspectives respectively. Reporting was generally relevant and accurate but seemed to develop a momentum of its own, separate from that generated by the original article, leading to a perceived need by politicians and professionals to respond (belatedly) to public rather than scientific/medical concerns.

Following the scare concerning limb reduction defects, several congenital anomaly registers undertook studies to compare the prevalence of LRD in babies born in coastal areas with those born inland. These reports from England and Wales, Italy and Latin America all found that there was no difference in the reported rates of LRD for babies born in coastal areas compared to those born inland.

To avoid both unnecessary public anxiety and inappropriate political and professional reaction, public health scientists should consider adopting a more proactive rather than reactive approach to the media coverage of potentially sensitive research papers and media generated alarms. This has implications for research dissemination strategies. Communication in public health is an essential skill to maximise the clarity of the messages imparted.


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