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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 07:15 GMT 08:15 UK
Press attacked for organ reports
Organ retention stories peaked in 2001
Newspaper coverage of organ retention scandals caused a fall in tissue donation for research, a study says.

A British Medical Journal paper criticised the press for their reliance on personal stories and blurring the lines between retention and donation.

Researchers found donations to the UK tumour bank halved at the height of the Alder Hey scandal.

In 1999 it was revealed doctors at the Liverpool children's hospital had kept dead babies' organs without consent.

The scandal was widely reported, reaching a peak when the official inquiry report was published at the beginning of 2001.

Other hospitals also got caught up in the retention scandal, which refers to the taking of a dead person's organ without the consent of families, compared to donation which is when the patient or family agrees to having tissue samples or organs taken for research purposes.

Before the news emerged, the tumour bank - which relies for its research on families of child cancer patients consenting to tissue samples being taken - was receiving more than 400 donations a year.

I think scientists and health professionals find it difficult to communicate with the press
Dr Meryl Aldridge, media expert

In the last six months of 2001 donations dropped to under 100, the study by Nottingham, Leicester and Brunel universities and the Institute of Cancer Research found.

The researchers, who also looked at other hospitals who got caught up in organ retention controversies, said the lines had become blurred between donation and retention.

That meant, they said, that anything to do with body parts and tissues had been associated with the scandal.

In one case, a story about the routine removal of thymus glands from children during heart surgery was depicted as repeating the errors of organ retention. The study did not identify the paper responsible.

Newspapers were also attacked for their use of individual stories to illustrate organ retention, citing a Daily Mail article in May 2000 which told the story of a burial.

But the study also suggested medical staff may have contributed to the drop in donations, saying anecdotal evidence indicated healthcare professionals were deterred from asking for donations during the scandal.


By 2004 the donation numbers had recovered to above their 1999 levels.

Report co-author Dr Mary Dixon-Woods said: "Newspaper coverage of organ retention scandals certainly hurt tissue donation, which is completely separate.

"I think this shows that media reporting of science can have important implications for those who conduct and regulate science."

But Dr Meryl Aldridge, a media expert at the University of Nottingham, said medics should also accept some blame.

"I think scientists and health professionals find it difficult to communicate with the press. They do not understand their needs and the way they work so sometimes they don't get their point across."

She also said it was unrealistic to expect the press not to use personal stories, but said problems emerged when the media used the "exceptional, to illustrate the typical".

Organ scandal families accept 5m
31 Jan 03 |  England

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