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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 13th April 2012

Just so you don’t have to read between the lines to get to it, I’ll say, quite clearly, that I’m feeling a little smug today. Now that’s said, I hope it will make me concentrate on the useful stuff rather than making the whole of this blog about how clever I am.

I’m mentioned before, on too many occasions to link to, that I have a number of Google Alerts bringing me daily information on a variety of topics and specific plants of interest. If you have a particular interest, or hobby, I recommend using an Alert as another way of keeping up to date.

It was my alert for Aristolochia that meant I picked up on the new paper about the role of aristolochic acid in causing cancer on the day after it was published and blogged about it the next day. Since when, the story has spread quite widely so I thought I’d return to it and look at some of the ways it has been reported.

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

I’ve been in regular correspondence with Professor Arthur Grollman, the lead author of the study and he tells me that he hasn’t spoken directly to many journalists so the story seems to be spreading by re-reporting of a few original pieces.

The first to appear was this story in USA Today What’s interesting about this report is that it was written before the actual publication of the paper. The USA Today column appeared on Saturday 7th April and the paper was published online on Monday 9th. I’m guessing that the public affairs department at Stony Brook University knew that Dan Vergano, of USA Today, would do a good job of covering the topic and gave him a ‘heads up’ ahead of publication. Certainly, the column is a good example of what science journalism can be with a total of twenty-two external hyperlinks giving the interested reader plenty of opportunity to delve deeper into the topic.

Sadly, not all reporting is up to that standard. The BBC hasn’t, so far, given it any coverage though its search facility does offer a number of links to other publications that have and the Daily Mail is, as always, the Daily Mail but I’ll come back to that.

I won’t link to all of them but this new research has been reported in South Africa, Hong Kong, Pakistan, by the British Medical Journal in the UK, India, Nigeria as well as by a number of outlets in the USA and in Taiwan itself.

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort

Some of those reports accept comments from readers and that brings us back to the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail is frequently ridiculed, with justification, for believing that every substance is either a cause of cancer or a miracle cure. Some substances go from being a cause to a cure within a few weeks. In other words, its reporting of medical stories is, generally, sensationalist. On this occasion, however, the report itself is reasonable and balanced.  That may be because it is a reworking of an Agence France Presse report rather than directly sourced.

But, where the Mail returns to form is in the comments. At the time of writing, there have only been seven comments added to the article (the seventh from me) but of those three take the line that mainstream medicine is the ‘criminal’ and attacks on ‘natural’ remedies are put about by the multinational pharmaceutical companies seeking to boost their business. As often with such comments the logic very clearly breaks down. Conventional medicine is having to clear up the mess made by the use of herbal ‘remedies’ containing aristolochic acid and is, therefore, if you believe medicine is just about making profits, making good profits from the disease being caused. Why would it want to expose the harm and, therefore, reduce the incidence of upper urinary tract cancer?

I’m hopeful that news of this work will continue to spread so that not only will people take more care about what herbal preparations they use but, as importantly, people having a bit of ‘waterworks trouble’ won’t dismiss it as insignificant but will seek medical attention in time to be helped.

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