Have medical journals helped to justify war?

April 10, 2003

Medical journals may have played an important part in providing the political justification for attacking Iraq, argues a public health expert in this week's BMJ.

Professor Ian Roberts believes that most people in the United States and the United Kingdom would have preferred not to launch a military attack on the people of Iraq. To persuade them to do so, they need to believe that they are being attacked.

Medical journals have (unwittingly) had an important propaganda role in persuading the public that it is being attached, he writes.

To illustrate this point, he compared the number of articles on bioterrorism published in five major medical journals between 1999 and 2002 with the number of articles published on road traffic crashes (which kill about 3,000 people and disable about 30,000 each day worldwide).

Articles on bioterrorism outnumbered articles on road traffic crashes in both 2001 and 2002. Of the 124 articles on bioterrorism, 63% originated in the United States and the rest in the United Kingdom. JAMA published the largest proportion (47%), followed by the BMJ (21%), the Lancet (16%), and the New England Journal of Medicine (15%).

Compared with a health problem that kills 3,000 people per day, the public health importance of bioterrorism has been over emphasised in the leading medical journals, he says.

"I am not implying that this is a deliberate attempt to alarm the population, but nevertheless it may have had this effect. As a result, medical journals may have unwittingly played an important political part in justifying war in Iraq," he concludes.


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