Two letters examine the effect of the death from cervical cancer of a television character (Alma in Coronation Street) on the NHS cervical screening programme.
Researchers in Manchester found that 14,000 additional cervical smear tests were performed as a result of the storyline (a 21% increase on the previous year) and led to a huge strain on local laboratories. Another team, based in London, found that the same story triggered up to 300 additional weekly enquiries to CancerBACUP's helpline (the United Kingdom's leading cancer information charity).
They suggest that television programme makers should realise the power of such stories, while those responsible for promoting health need to engage public programme makers in a full ethical debate.
A third letter reveals the alarming escalation of charcoal burning suicide in Hong Kong after an incident in 1998 was widely reported in the media. In 2001 it replaced hanging as the second commonest method of suicide, accounting for 25% of all deaths from suicide.
As a result, concerns have been raised about the potentially contagious impact of media reporting. However news editors have expressed reservations and remain unconvinced about guidelines on suicide reporting.