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STDs, fish oil, and a mini-rant about the media

In March there was a significant hubbub in the New York Times, on CBS, and elsewhere about a Centers for Disease Control report that one in four U.S. teenaged girls had a sexually transmitted disease. National Journal recently concluded that the CDC report had "several serious shortcomings that undermine its validity, as well as its usefulness to parents, legislators, [and] health officials . . ."

Shortcomings, almost needless to say, that weren't emphasized in the mainstream media stories at the time. Even worse, the context that National Journal so ably provides was missing, too.

On a different health topic, here's an almost one-month-old story in the Los Angeles Times headlined "Fish oil supplements help heart heart disease patients" carrying the subhead, "But, doctors say, fish oil has no documented benefits for people without a cardiac problem". 

Only one doctor--not doctors--is cited or quoted in the piece concerning "documented benefits for people without a cardiac problem". Dr. Thomas Pfeffer is indeed quoted as saying fish oil supplements have no "documented benefits" for healthy people. But he also is quoted as saying, "Eating fish a couple of times a week is undoubtedly a healthful habit." Shouldn't the article try to reconcile those two statements? One possible way to reconcile the statements is that in the first, Dr. Pfeffer refers to "supplements"--pills--not fish oil, per se. Another possible way to reconcile them is that while there is epidemiological and observational evidence that fish oil benefits healthy people, some doctors don't accept the evidence as "documented" because relatatively few randomized trials--the gold standard of evidence--have yet been done on healthy people.

But there is at least some such evidence. The Mayo Clinic--which is very conservative in assessing the benefits of food supplements--writes that there is "strong scientific evidence" that fish oil reduces triglycerides and (slightly) lowers blood pressure. (On the effect on triglycerides, also see this summary of an HHS report: "The effect was dose-dependent and generally consistent among healthy subjects and patients with CVD . . .") Shouldn't the Times have at least mentioned those findings?

Equally annoying is this statement in the Times story: "The American Heart Assn. officially encourages people who have heart disease to eat at least 1 gram of DHA and EPA combined each day, about what you'd get from 2 ounces of Atlantic salmon." The author almost certainly doesn't mean 2 ounces, he probably means 2 servings (six ounces). See this authoritative report, which lists (Table 3), for "Atlantic salmon. farmed" 1.5 to 2.5 three-ounce servings and for "Atlantic salmon, wild" 2 to 3.5 servings. [As Rosanne Rosanadanna would have said, "Never mind!" Thanks to PJ--in the comments--for the correction.]

Two ounces, six ounces: who cares?

I, for one, do. These two stories are just two among many instances of poor reporting by the major media, particularly on health issues. Of course, it's not really reporting, it's more paraphrasing a press release and phoning one or two persons for 16-word quotes. This is the same major media that has some of its representatives decrying bloggers.

Fix the beams in your own eyes, folks.