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A Duty to Inform - Correctly


A number of incidents occurring recently have reminded me of the responsibility all of us have to improve people’s health literacy. This is becoming an increasingly challenging task as sources of misinformation, unreliable information, correct-but-misleading-information and downright wrong information, proliferate.

The first incident that worried me considerably was when I attended the final meeting of a long-running, high-quality research project where we were given the study findings. I’d better not be too explicit as the study hasn’t been published yet – suffice it to say that it concerned active labour. The findings were surprising but applied only to a certain group of labouring women. The worry for all of us at the meeting was that they would be applied to every woman, thereby undermining many decades of work promoting active birth and enabling women to feel in control of their labours.

A significant duty for us as parent educators is to help people understand that the best research is very clear about who was included in the study and who was excluded. If the anxious mothers or fathers questioning you about a particular study doesn’t share the inclusion criteria that determined who was in the study, then the findings don’t apply to them.

The second incident concerned an item in The Times a week ago with the headline, ‘Breastfed children have higher level of toxic chemicals’. I knew that this was true having recently read T. Berry Brazelton on ‘The Irreducible Needs of Children’ where he talks about the critical importance of providing a healthy environment for our youngest children. This means ensuring that future mothers are not ingesting chemicals that pass through into their breast milk. Breast milk should be nature’s purest food and if it is not, then as a society, we should be doing something about it.

The study reported in The Times was carried out in the Faroe Islands between 1999 and 2000 with a (small) sample of 81 children. Those who were breastfed had higher levels of PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) in their blood after a few months of breastfeeding than their mothers, and higher than non-breastfed babies. The article did quote the study’s Chief Investigator as saying that the findings should not discourage breastfeeding, but it’s hard to see how a report in a newspaper as influential as The Times, with such a title and mentioning Harvard Professors, wouldn’t.

The third incident that fed my growing unease about misinformation was a conversation I had with a midwife who worked on a Helpline for a major charity. She spoke about increasing levels of anxiety being experienced by pregnant women as a result of internet use. She was especially concerned about the number of people who rang the Helpline after visiting internet chatrooms where women talked to each other about being pregnant and what they had ‘been told’. The midwife felt that rather than supporting women, chatrooms often generated huge anxiety as a result of the ‘horror stories’ that were shared and the alarming – generally incorrect – information that was circulated. She had worked on the helpline for many years and felt that far from being better informed than they used to be, women were less well-informed, and certainly more confused.

I could mention a fourth incident, too. This was when I received an article for the next issue of the IJBPE in which the author describes how to surf the net safely by identifying sites that are authoritative and responsible, and sussing out those offering out-of-date or dodgy information. I thought this was one of the most useful items ever submitted to me for publication and intend to use it whenever I am working with health professionals and parent educators who are advising families with young children, and to bring it to the attention of the mothers and fathers with whom I work myself.A

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