THE MINISTRY OF HEALTH AGAINST THE DAILY NEWS

Case Number: 639

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 1996

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Daily News

The Press Council has dismissed a complaint by the Ministry of Health against the Taranaki Daily News over a report published on 8 July featuring claims by an Australian researcher.

Thousands of New Zealand children could be at risk of contracting a deadly brain disease after receiving the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, according to the scientist quoted.

Objecting to the article, the ministry described it as unbalanced, giving people undue cause for alarm and not in the public interest. The ministry said official information to had supplied to the journalist concerned -- emphasising that no clinical study had ever shown a link between human blood products and anyone contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- had been ignored. Undue attention had been accorded the minority opinion of one person; and the Daily News had taken no action over its complaint, added the ministry.

Defending the publication, the editor of the newspaper denied scaremongering. He submitted that the ministry was over-sensitive. While it insisted that there was no evidence that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease had been transmitted through blood transfusions, there was also no proof that it could not be passed on thus.

Indeed, said the editor, the ministry accepted there was a risk, albeit small, which was why it had moved to quarantine the blood product. The Daily News believed it was in the public interest that people be told, when receiving the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, that it contained blood product and thus that there was an associated risk with that blood product.

The Press Council concurred. It issued a general warning to editors at large that it expected particular care with potentially sensational reports on such subjects in such circumstances. Nevertheless, in the particular case of the Daily News it resolved not to uphold the complaint.

The decision notes that the issue raised was a genuine one of public health policy. Considerations of balance were to be weighed, not so much on the particular article challenged as on a series of articles, on the same or related topics, which the newspaper had originated.

The report at issue incorporated the statement that there remained no proven clinical or epidemiological evidence that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was transmittable by blood -- as had many reports. Thus the assertion in the introduction to the disputed article had been qualified subsequently in the same report. Moreover, the newspaper had hesitated for almost a fortnight before publishing, while it considered carefully whether the public had a right to the information and whether the information would be unduly alarming.

The ministry itself agreed that a theoretical risk existed, although it was officially deemed to be so low as to be immeasurable.

Members of the Press Council found that it was incorrect for the ministry to protest that the Daily News had taken no action on its complaint. On the contrary, two days after the report had appeared, the newspaper carried an account of accusations by the ministry and the vaccine maker that it had indulged in scaremongering, irresponsibility and alarmism.

That follow-up report had quoted the director general of health Dr Karen Poutasi, as emphasising again the absence of evidence that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was transmittable by blood, and declaring: “It would be a pity if the health benefits achieved by New Zealand’s immunisation programme were threatened for the sake of a few headlines.”

Such suggestions or sentiments, some members observed, were almost ironic. There was no probative evidence that the Daily News had actually subverted or impaired public immunisation programmes.

The ministry’s fear was itself, therefore, theoretical - and perhaps even immeasurable. In that respect, it seemed to be in much the same category as the published material about which authorities had complained.