Doubt Cast On Cot Death Study

The findings of a high-profile cot death study seen as discrediting the controversial paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow have been called into question in a new report. A paper published in the medical journal The Lancet in January 2005 suggested that the vast majority of second infant deaths in families who have already lost a baby were due to natural causes. But now a report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) casts doubts on the conclusions.

Sir Roy, who gave evidence in a series of high-profile court cases, is associated with the so-called “Meadow’s Law” – that “one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, unless proven otherwise”.

But research led by Prof Robert Carpenter of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that as many as 80-90% of second deaths were natural.

The study was based on more than 6,000 babies who passed through the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death’s Care of the Next Infant (CONI) scheme, which was set up to support parents with a history of sudden infant death. The paper was published at a time when a series of murder convictions connected to cases of sudden infant deaths were being reviewed.

Concern over Prof Meadows’s evidence in high profile cases sparked a chain of events which was to lead to him being struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council – although he later successfully appealed the decision at the High Court.

But now the BMJ article, by investigative journalist Jonathan Gornall, alleges that classification of deaths in the study were changed after the death of a senior researcher Prof John Emery.

According to the BMJ article, Prof Emery prepared a report on the CONI scheme in 1998 – at which stage 5,000 babies had passed through the scheme – among which there had been 35 unexpected deaths.

Prof Emery and others concluded then that 14 of those deaths (40%) were “unnatural”, the article says. By the time of the 2005 paper – when the number of babies through the scheme had grown to 6,373 with 46 unexpected deaths – the proportion of deaths seen as “unnatural” had fallen to just 13%, the article says.