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Red wine improves women's fertility – an example of scientific misrepresentation in the press

6 November 2017
By Professor Joyce Harper
Professor Harper is director of education and head of the department of reproductive health at the Institute for Women's Health and founder of www.globalwomenconnected.com
Appeared in BioNews 925

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference was held last week in San Antonio, USA. Several oral presentations of abstracts made it into the popular press and have added to the confusion and inaccurate information fed to the public.

The most worrying example of this was a study entitled 'Does alcohol intake impact ovarian reserve?' by Dr Ashley Eskew at Washington University et al.

As advisers to the Science Media Centre (SMC), myself and other professionals were asked to comment on the abstract.  Eight of us supplied quotes, all of which said the study was too small to draw any conclusions. Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at University of Cambridge, summed it up: 'This is absurd – a weak conference abstract based on 135 women with a "trend towards significance".'

But this is not how the science correspondents of the UK's popular press reported the oral presentation. The Times headline was 'Women who have regular glass of red found to be more fertile'. The Daily Mail said 'Five glasses of red wine a month could HELP you get pregnant after medics find link between drink and healthier ovaries' and The Telegraph reported 'How a weekly glass of red could boost a woman's chances of becoming pregnant'.

The main problem with reporting any oral presentation from a conference in the press is that in the majority of cases, this is preliminary work that has not been published. Many oral presentations will never see the light of day as a fully published paper.

In this particular case there were several issues. The authors asked 135 women to complete a detailed questionnaire about their dietary habits and compared the alcohol they consumed to their antral follicle count.

The first issue is that the sample size is not large enough to reach any meaningful conclusions, and is too small to take into account confounding factors such as ethnicity, diet, lifestyle and fertility history. The authors only accounted for age and body mass index.

But the biggest flaw is that there is no evidence that measuring the antral follicle count has any clinical value. IVF clinics routinely measure biomarkers including antral follicle count, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) to check ovarian reserve (a measure of how many eggs a woman has in her ovaries) so they can decide which dose of fertility drugs they should give a patient. However there is no scientific evidence that this commonly marketed ovarian reserve test –the so-called 'fertility MOT'– can be used as a predictor of fertility potential, as confirmed in a study published two weeks ago by Dr Anne Steiner and colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (see BioNews 922). 

I recently attended a science media training event at the Crick Institute in London. We were introduced to four science correspondents and the question was asked: 'How many of you have a science degree?'

You can guess the answer. We were told that journalists do not feel they need a science degree to report on science. One of them said that if they had been a war correspondent, we would not expect them to have been to war. Obviously the analogy is ridiculous. We need to ensure that science correspondents report accurate information on published scientific studies or official reports. As scientists – we hope that journalists will listen to our comments, such as those provided by experts to the SMC, and ask for our advice as much as possible.  

In the future, let's hope we can work harmoniously with journalists to engage the public about science.

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