Saturday, March 08, 2008

25th February, Sydney
To Sydney for the annual summit of the
Oxford Health Alliance. The Alliance brings together participants from industry, academia, NGOs, and governments to tackle the epidemic of chronic disease. They come from many backgrounds, not just public health but the law, the media, the built environment among others. The message is simple – 3four50:

  • 3 risk factors – smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, lead to

  • 4 diseases – heart disease, type 2 diabetes, lung disease, and many cancers, accounting for

  • 50% of deaths in the world.

We were allocated to groups, at tables, and asked to discuss the issues raised in a series of plenary presentations (speeches, panel discussions and video clips). OXHA has always had a strong emphasis on understanding (and changing for the better) the environments that people live in and how they impact on their health. This year we focused on cities where more than half of the world’s population now lives. A key theme, developed in particular by

Tony McMichael, was the issue of sustainability. Too often policies create sick people and sick environments. Greater car use leads to obesity, heart disease and diabetes and pollutes the immediate environment while contributing to global warming.

Of course, even in an audience that is committed to tackling chronic diseases, there is scope for disagreement. One area of contention was about how much evidence is enough. Should we delay calling for action until we have all the evidence? Or should we adopt the precautionary principle, even though we may occasionally be wrong? Those favouring the former highlighted the danger of unintended consequences, while the latter reminded us that that it was many years after the original epidemiological studies before we understood, at the biological level, of how tobacco causes lung cancer but it would have been a disaster if we had waited until we had it before acting to reduce smoking.

My role was two-fold. The first was to speak on a panel on getting evidence into policy, something I have spoken about many times. It was an exceptional panel and I was accompanied by Larry Gostin, Fiona Adshead, and Simon Chapman. You can hear commentary on the session by Richard Smith on the conference web-site (click on the Day 2 pm tag). I was arguing that we need to understand where politicians come from, recognising their personal agendas and trying to find win-win solutions. Yet that does not mean that we should not challenge how the political process works. In recent years there has been an enormous amount of soul searching by researchers about issues such as interpretation of evidence and research fraud. This is entirely justified. Yet the sins of a few researchers pale into insignificance in comparison with much everyday politics.

Unfortunately, few health-related decisions are subject to the scrutiny that we need to understand how they came about. Instead, we need to look for insights from other areas of policy. Our sources are some recent books, such as Anthony Seldon’s biography of Tony Blair. Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, and Carl Unger’s The fall of the house of Bush. These well-referenced books remind us of the importance of personal relationships. Unger shows how many of George W Bush’s policies were driven by his determination to go down in history as a greater president than his father. Woodward describes how the decision to go to war in Iraq took place in a US cabinet where, when Donald Rumsfeld was speaking, Colin Powell ignored him and vice versa, while George W Bush seemed incapable of understanding what either was saying. In the UK, Seldon describes graphically how policy making was dominated by the visceral and mutual hatred of each other by supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, to the extent that some of their senior advisors would not even sit in the same room. The relation was summed up best by Gordon Brown’s now famous remark to Tony Blair that "There is nothing you could ever say to me that I could ever believe."

It is, however, when we get into the detail of the decision-making process that we can really understand how some politicians understand the concept of evidence. The best described example is, of course, the case for invading Iraq. Here our sources are Woodward and Unger. It is now apparent that the “uranium from Niger” story was manufactured by the Italian security services to ingratiate them with the Americans. The flaws in the story, such as the fact that the French authorities were in complete control of the Niger mining operation and the story required that 500 tons of uranium ore be transferred between ships on the high sea (if not impossible certainly extremely difficult) was conveniently overlooked by the US and UK security services. The mobile chemical weapon factories, later found to be trucks for filling weather balloons with helium, were known to be harmless from the beginning. Interestingly, we now know, from an analysis by Ronan Bennett, that it was not French obstruction that prevented a UN resolution in favour of an invasion of Iraq but rather the role of the Mexican Ambassador to the UN, Adolfo Aguilar ZĂ­nser, then on the Security Council, who was the only one not to be taken in by the “intelligence” and to ask serious questions. One was whether there was any correlation between how well hidden weapons were and the speed with which they could be deployed. The admission that this was true suggested some contradiction between the two arguments being made that a) the weapons were so well hidden that they could not be found yet b) they could be made ready within 45 minutes! He was not persuaded, and as a result, neither were the ambassadors of the other undecided countries. At this stage, French support would have been irrelevant. So how was this peer-reviewer rewarded for his diligence in exposing this appalling example of research fraud? The US authorities put pressure on the Mexican government and he was recalled. While of course we need to continue the struggle against fraudulent researchers, we should not let politicians get away with the same crimes.

I did, however, have a second role. OXHA has been at the forefront of exploiting the opportunities offered by the media, thanks to the expertise of an extremely innovative production company,
Joose TV. The summits are web cast live and, if you have followed the links above, accompanied by webcast commentaries. In an innovation this year I did a series of interviews with some of the participants: Larry Gostin, Srinath Reddy, Judith Mackay (Bloomberrg Tobacco Initiative), Abdullah Daar (leader of the Grand Challenges project), Claire Lyons (Pepsico Foundation), Viliani Tangi (Health Minister of Tonga), and Christine Hancock (OXHA). You can view them on the 3four50 site.

No comments: