Just to be clear; you can’t catch Alzheimer’s, whatever the headlines say

Alzheimer’s charity blasts national media for irresponsible and sensationalist reporting as the editors continue to pile on

It is fast becoming a textbook case illustrating the darker nature of health reporting…

On September 9 the journal Nature carried an article written by a group of 13 prominent scientists mostly from London Universities or Medical Institutes, with the mind shudderingly obtuse title “Evidence for human transmission of amyloid-B pathology and cerebral amyloid angiopathy.”

All of the authors are specialist in their discipline and, for all I know, this is a brilliant piece of clinical research which may lead to great advances in the field.

But J K Rowling has nothing to fear from these worthy men and women.

At some 4,000 words it is (mercifully) comparatively short but still takes some reading for the uninitiated.

The whole is a report on research carried out on victims of a rare form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) where the infection was ‘iatrogenic’, meaning it was caused by some element of medical treatment. In these cases mostly resulting from the use of human growth hormones from the early 1960s to 1985 when the practice was discontinued.

Every study, like every story, needs a hook to interest its readers; something new or at least a twist on the usual, something that will attract attention.

In the case of this study, the autopsies of six of the eight victims of ICJD indicated for the first time the presence of the protein beta amyloid, one of several chemical ‘markers’ for Alzheimer’s.

Hence the snappy title, they were looking to see if this protein had developed spontaneously, as a result of the ICJD or has been inadvertently infected during a surgical procedure.

 This is the point at which the popular medical press pricked up its ears...now that would be a story.

And so even though the report carries this clear statement: “While there is no suggestion that Alzheimer’s disease is a contagious disease and no supportive evidence from epidemiological studies that Alzheimer’s disease is transmissible…”

It does go on to suggest that it cannot rule out the possibility that some protein may be passed on through contaminated surgical equipment.

And that was enough to light the blue touch paper.

“Alzheimer’s can be transmitted” The Times

“Alzheimer’s may be spread from person to person” New York Post

“Dementia could be spread through dental treatment” Irish Examiner

“First evidence of Alzheimer’s transmission between people” Financial Times

“Alzheimer’s may spread via blood transfusions or surgical and dental accidents” Mail

“Alzheimer’s can be spread from human to human” Daily Mirror

It was these and hundreds of similar headlines that prompted one Alzheimer’s charity to issue a blanket condemnation of the news coverage.

Dementia in general and Alzheimer’s in particular is such a terrifying disease about which so little is yet known that it is the height of irresponsibility to add any more layers of misunderstanding and fear mongering to the folklore surrounding it.

Today, of course, the media are falling over themselves to carry stories condemning each other for their crass misreading of the actual report and ‘correcting’ all the other sources.

Even one of the authors of the report, to whom no blame is attached for the circus that followed, has issued his own clarification.

"The idea that Alzheimer's is contagious is absolute rubbish," said Simon Mead of the Institute of Neurology at the University College London. "The last thing we want to do is cause panic or cause people to avoid surgery or a blood transfusion."

Need any more be said?

 

 

 

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Krill 12_09_15
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