Science - May 10, 2012

‘An apology for Q fever would help patients'

The victims of Q fever want compensation from the government and goat farmers, and the national ombudsman says the ex-minister should offer an apology. An apology can help, giving the patient some moral support, says Maria Koelen, professor of Health and Society.

‘It took a long time before the government went into action to halt the spread of Q fever in the Netherlands. And that is what bothers the patients most. After all, it is the government's task to warn people about such health risks and take steps against them. That is why they think the government owes them a gesture. People cannot do anything about their illness, it is just something that happened to them and it is hard for patients to come to terms with it. So it would be good if the ex-ministers concerned now admitted that they took action too late. Such an acknowledgment does not help the patient physically but it is a bit of moral support, as ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer says. And he has a point.
‘But in these kinds of cases the government is always cautious because who should you blame? You soon end up with a discussion about whether the government was negligent. The minister carries the political responsibility but can only make a decision once there is a diagnosis and a reliable assessment of the health problem. As I understand it, the Q fever bacterium was discovered purely by chance in healthy people will flu-like symptoms. Then it gradually became clear that the strain of Q fever that affected goats can be transmitted to humans and makes them very ill. Knowledge about the bird flu was developed in a similar way. With the knowledge we have now, the alarm bells go off as soon as a test comes out positive. It took a while before the disease was identified but does that constitute negligence? I am not a lawyer and a verdict on the government was already reached two years ago by the commission led by my fellow professor Gert van Dijk.'

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