Scientific research often produces results that, at face value, are extremely alarming.
One such study has now found that fish embryos become deformed after being exposed to Primodos, a hormone pregnancy test used in the UK up until 1978, the main components of which are still in some contraceptives and drugs for endometriosis.
This adds weight to the concerns of campaigners who believe Primodos caused deformities in children, claims that bring to mind the harm to unborn children caused by the infamous morning-sickness treatment thalidomide. It must also be a serious worry for those taking the existing treatments.
The study might appear to go against the finding of a review by Government experts, which concluded in November that there was no “causal association” between Primodos and birth abnormalities.
However, the new study and the review do not necessarily contradict each other.
It is possible that the effect on the zebrafish does exist, but that it does not manifest itself in humans or does not do so when Primodos is used as a pregnancy test.
Perhaps frustratingly, this is a study that shows there might be a problem – but it does not establish that there is.
As the lead scientist, Dr Neil Vargesson, stressed, they are “a long way” from saying that Primodos has the same effect on humans as it has on the fish. But he also cautioned that some modern drugs have “much higher doses” of Primodos’ components.
So essentially, scientists are still looking into this. It is worth noting that the expert committee did actually consider Dr Vargesson’s then-unpublished study when coming to its conclusions. And a review of all the available evidence is usually a more reliable source of practical advice than a single study.
The flawed research that linked the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism sparked front-page headlines and led many parents to stop inoculating their children to the detriment of public health. It took some time for that study to be comprehensively discredited, but the damage was done. The vast majority of scientists are extremely thorough, honest and dedicated individuals whose goal is to get to the truth.
But it is important to remember this is a journey that usually involves numerous steps.