Healthy Evidence

The contraceptive Pill and MS: behind the Daily Mail headlines

Today's attention grabbing Daily Mail headline ("Multiple sclerosis linked to contraceptive pill: Risk could be up to 50% higher in women who take it") will no doubt have caused much alarm.

We've written a blog post to try to give the article some context, and to provide some much needed background:

See the full article here:

10 Replies

Great stuff Sorrel!

A great summary of why we should always take a good hard look at the source of a story and if - as in this case - it's a conference report, we should take it with a grain of salt.

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What if it's from a respected organisation such as the World Health Organisation, and they receive funding from the USDA for instance; how should we take it?


Even from the Daily Mail article I could not see that the pill increased MS risk by up to 50%. It did say that women with MS were up to 50% more likely to have taken the pill, which statistically is not the same thing. But quoting the maximum in a range of values is very poor science and potentially misleading.

I do think it is reprehensible to go public with results which are incomplete and have not even been reviewed by peers at a conference.


The mail article said:

"Those who had used the contraceptives but had stopped at least one month before symptoms started were 50 per cent more likely to develop MS."

But again, this is unhelpful and even meaningless if they do not say what the baseline risk for the population is


There is a real clarity issue here.

Newspaper love saying thing like DOUBLE THE RISK! rather than increase the risk from 1% to 2% , for instance. And the trouble is that researchers fall into the same trap. Researchers should be banned from using relative numbers and use actual figures.

As a very rough guess, if in the UK around 200 per 100,000 women get MS that is a risk of around 0.2%. If this study (assuming it is right) says risk is increased by 29%, then that raises the risk to 0.258% - an increase of 0.058%... er, I think.

NB: I am unsure of the real figures since we don't have an accurate figure of how many women in the UK have MS, but I think this is around the estimated area .... :)

Anyway, whatever the figures are, that is how they should be delivered - there are plenty of people who will read that headline and say "If I take the pill, I have a 50% chance of getting MS"

We are very bad at percentages in this country - this is not a problem with education, but a direct result of the confusing way they are used in the media. The MetOffice for years refused to give out the percentage chance of precipitation because they thought "the British public is not sophisticated enough to understand what a percentage is"

Strangely, when they did start using them, there did not seem a problem with understanding the numbers, but many people did not understand what Precipitation meant. Oh well....

Sorrel, can you add something to your article about the actual increase in risk - preferably at the top - just to comfort the few who panic?


Risk is very poorly understood by the general public. If that were not the case, it would be impossible to run the National Lottery.

You are absolutely(!) right about relative vs absolute risk. I expect no better of the Daily Mail, but I don't expect scientists to mislead by using inflated estimates of risk.


Actually, journalists often don't understand this and when I used to work on scientific programmes I was stunned by the number of scientists who got it confused as well - they were fine when sitting there working it out but it all became a mess the moment we turned the microphone on!

I am a great believer in plain English and comparative explanations. So, saying things like "two people out of every one hundred thousand" might not sound natty and scientific, but is definitely understandable.

Until someone asks "which two?"


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Slightly off key, but very much connecting, have you seen the 'You Tube' (short video) of :-

'Dr Gandy and B12 deficiency'

and how easily he cured a woman with MS.

I have also been reading how much MS is being misdiagnosis.


I think you mean Dr Chandy and the woman did not have MS but had symptoms that were "MS like" and a consequence of a B12 deficiency.

However, he ran into trouble because though he had kept his own records he had not shared his evidence with others, gone through a peer review procedure and so on, so it was not clear whether all his patients were being diagnosed with deficiency correctly, or whether he may be missing something else.

He set up the support group several years ago and has had quite a bit of coverage for his campaign. The BBC Inside Out program was three years ago and I am not sure what has happened since that time and his website is a mess, which does not help!


A job well done, Sorrel!


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