Zantac Lawsuit

Researching drug company and regulatory malfeasance for over 16 years
Humanist, humorist

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Making Sense About Science Media Centres

I'm worried.

I feel kind of deflated.

I've been blogging for over 11 years and met with many people, most of whom have lost loved ones to antidepressant-induced deaths. I've watched blogs come and go, campaigners who had a fire in their bellies slowly fade away because sometimes it all can get to be too much.

Earlier this week I was alerted to a post on David Healy's popular blog regarding the Science Media Centre. (SMC) I'd never heard of them before so read Healy's 'Honey I Shrunk the Shrinks' with great interest.

As a writer and researcher, I rarely take one post at face value. I always research the subject in question. During my research of the SMC, I became increasingly concerned that this is something we should all be looking into. To say it's alarming is an understatement.

The SMC is like something you would read in a Dan Brown novel. It's the type of organisation that one sees pop up on their daily news feeds on Facebook, usually accompanied by a link that directs you to websites that claim the earth is flat or man has never walked on the moon, you know the type.

What's different about the SMC, however, is they don't hide what they do, nor do they hide who funds them.  Maybe this is a purposeful act, one that shows the minorities that SMC has muscle?

Without naming all their financial backers (there's too many, past and present) I've picked out some of those that cause me great concern.

Present funders include:

Royal Pharmaceutical Society
Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN)
Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) Limited
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)
British Pharmacological Society
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP)
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)

Previous funders include:

Daily Express
Eli Lilly & Company
Institute of Mental Health
Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health Research Network
Mental Health Research Network Cymru
News International Ltd
Pfizer Limited
Scottish Mental Health Research Network
World Health Organisation (WHO)

There are many more pharmaceutical companies that are or have funded the SMC. I've just focused on those that market and manufacture antidepressants.

So, who exactly are the SMC?

They were formed in 2000 after the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology's third report on "Science and Society." This report claimed there was a better need for more experts in the field of science to offer expert information in the media.

So, why should we be worried?

Well, one doesn't have to go too far back to see an example of the SMC in action, in fact, we only have to go back a couple of weeks to July 26, 2017, just one day before Panorama's 'A Prescription For Murder' was shown on British TV screens. The eagerly awaited programme was dismissed as 'scaremongering' and 'stigmatizing' 24 hours before it aired. The MHRA and the RCP (highlighted above) took to Twitter on the morning of the 26th.

RCP tweets included:
#BBCPanorama claims irresponsible and unfounded. Scaremongering title alone shows real stigma people taking #antidepressants face.
More #antidepressant prescriptions=more people getting help. Not more potential murderers. Don't stigmatize people needing help #BBCPanorama 

Whereas the MHRA tweeted:
SSRIs have been used to effectively treat millions of people worldwide & like all medicines, the safety is continually monitored.

More on the MHRA later.

All above board and predictable, one would think, until you dig deep into the SMC and what it is they actually do. It all becomes clear when you read their blurb:
The Science Media Centre’s ultimate goal is to facilitate more scientists to engage with the media. We provide support for scientists to engage with the media when their area hits the headlines, offering expertise of a team with over 10 years’ experience in science media relations. We have an ever expanding database of experts and have strong connections with UK universities, industry, learned societies and scientific institutions.
The SMC also runs off-the-record brainstorms to discuss how the scientific community can effectively coordinate its media relations on controversial issues within science. Occasionally the SMC will run subject-focused advisory sessions in anticipation of big controversial stories.
No surprise then that stories appeared in the British media before and after the airing of Panorama. Most, if not all, the articles featured an "expert" who claimed Panorama was stigmatizing and scaremongering. They were also stating that drugs, such as sertraline, which was heavily featured in the programme, do not cause people to go out and commit murder.

In defence of all these claims I, along with Kristina Gehrki, wrote a blog post entitled 'Panorama: Prescription For Stigma?' It proved to be popular and was shared many times on social media, particularly in the first 24 hours.

Around 8 hours after I went live with my co-written piece, MQ, a mental health website, ran with an eerily similar headline, 'A Prescription For Stigma: Why Evidence Matters.' The article was written by Ed Sykes who, coincidently, is Head of Mental Health and Neuroscience at the Science Media Centre.

In not supporting Panorama's efforts to increase awareness, Sykes wrote something quite striking:
The main evidence the programme seemed to be giving us, alongside the case studies, was the result of a Freedom of Information request to the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The MHRA is responsible for many aspects of healthcare, including a Yellow Card system that records all the bad side-effects linked to any drugs. The Panorama team informed us that their investigation had unearthed 28 cases linking antidepressants to murder and 32 to murderous thoughts. The show did point out that these were just reports, not conclusions that the drugs had caused murder. But what they failed to mention was that these reports to the MHRA can be made by anyone. You or I could go on their website right now and make a report, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a medical professional who reported it or that the report was supported by strong evidence. 
What Sykes, in his efforts to play down the 28 cases linking antidepressants to murder, failed to mention is the follow-up that the MHRA do when they receive a Yellow Card report. It was a question I put to them back in 2015. Their reply was the bog-standard game of semantics they have played with me for the past 11 years or so, further, they asked for payment to release the information. You can see the correspondence here and here.

Ed Sykes really should have done his homework before throwing out the 'correlation does not equal causation' line.

Before finishing my introduction to the SMC, I'd like to congratulate Prof. Sir Mike Rawlins, former Chairman of NICE (highlighted above) who, a month ago, was honoured by the Queen for his services to the safety of medicines, healthcare and innovation.

Oh, something else: Prof. Sir Mike Rawlins is the current Chairman for the MHRA. Prof. Sir Mike Rawlins also sits on the Board of Trustees at, you've guessed it, the Science Media Centre.

Now, who was it that coined the term 'revolving door'?

Bob Fiddaman

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