Brian Lenihan: news of his cancer was revealed on national television

It was news many people had been waiting almost nine months to hear. On Tuesday, Brian Lenihan told Seán O'Rourke on RTE's News At One that his pancreatic cancer had stabilised and that his twin aims were to steer the ship of state through the present crisis and to see to his own health.

"I want to ensure that it [the illness] does not compromise my ability to do my duties and that it [my health] too is put on a road to personal recovery", he said.

Lenihan is universally liked on both sides of the political divide and recognised, begrudgingly in some cases, as doing a good job in such testing times, The news that his cancer had stabilised was widely welcomed. But his handling of his own health issues, and his suggestion on O'Rourke's programme that it was he who had decided that it was "appropriate" to talk about them, raised again a question that has been often discussed since TV3 first revealed at Christmas that the finance minster had cancer does the public have a right to know everything about the health of a senior public official – whether a politician or a business person – upon whose decisions their very livelihood could depend?

In the US, it is fairly black and white. Former president George Bush's medical history was splashed all over the media after concerns were raised when he passed out in the White House, apparently as a result of choking on a pretzel.

The medical reports went as far as stating that Bush had suffered from haemorrhoids during his term in the National Guard in the late 1960s. They even recounted his alcohol and cocaine abuse.

Closer to home, former British prime minister Gordon Brown came under intense media scrutiny over his health after a rumour, sparked by a professor in France, that the reason he was ordered off foods such as cheese, salami and red wine was that these cannot be taken in conjunction with anti-depressants.

The rumour even surfaced during an interview with Brown on the traditionally august BBC.

"If you are a public official, particularly a high-ranking official, then you cannot expect the same levels of privacy. That's the trade-off when you take the job. If you can't accept that then you shouldn't take the job," Professor Charles Elson of the John L Weinberg Centre for Corporate Governance in Delaware in the United States told the Sunday Tribune.

"When this involves a serious illness, the expectations of privacy are not the same as that for ordinary citizens. We're talking about the good of the country".

Last year, Elson was critical of Apple ?Computers because of the way in which the IT giant had released information about the health of its talismanic CEO Steve Jobs.

Jobs' gaunt appearance at a conference had sparked rumours in Silicon Valley that he was seriously ill, a rumour fuelled by the fact that he too had contracted pancreatic cancer in 2004.

Under pressure, Jobs eventually admitted he was suffering from a nutritional imbalance and he would be able to continue on as Apple CEO during minor treatment. But five days later, he said his medical condition was a bit more complex and he would have to take a five-month break from the company – a break which involved a liver transplant

"Since Jobs is so closely aligned with Apple's brand, and since speculation about his health caused the company's shares to fluctuate last year, investors should be kept appraised of his health," Elson remarked at the time.

Here, the health of top executives is becoming a major issue, according to Michael McDonnell, director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in Ireland.

"This is evidenced by the increasing number of executive health clinics in Ireland who offer a comprehensive health screening," said McDonnell.

"The nearest thing to a minister in the corporate world is a senior executive who is closely associated with the success of a company. Health scares can affect share prices." he added.

McDonnell believes the key question will arise when one of these medical screenings of executives reveals a major illness which will impact on the business.

"Is the board entitled to the medical information? And if they are, what action are they entitled to take on foot of this information?" he said.

In Ireland, one's health is generally one's own business and access to medical files is heavily restricted by the Data Protection Act. The Employment Equality Act outlaws discrimination against an employee on nine grounds, including disability. This means workers cannot be sacked, disciplined or demoted because of their disability, though the worker has to prove discrimination occurred.

While a serious illness can have a direct effect on share prices in the corporate world, it is different for a politician, particularly one with such a high profile as Brian Lenihan.

For Fianna Fáil TD Michael Fitzpatrick, who spoke publicly about being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, forthright disclosures are the best policy.

"I went public with my own illness and I think that's the way it should be. People do compare notes, you know," said Fitzpatrick, who believes Lenihan is doing a tremendous job under the circumstances. "When you have a serious illness it is more difficult. But I don't think there is anybody better for the job, even with his current health problems," said the Kildare TD.

On the question of the public and the media's hunger for more news on Lenihan, Fitzpatrick believes the minister has done the right thing.

"There was a break over the summer months and I don't believe anybody was crying out that the information on the minister's health was not available," he said.

Despite the trying circumstances surrounding both his own case and that of Lenihan, Fitzpatrick does not believe the media is unduly intrusive.

But on the disclosure of Lenihan's illness on a TV3 news report on St Stephen's Day, he believes that was not the right way to do it.

"He needed more space to discuss it with his family. Even his aunt, Mary O'Rourke, said she was unaware of his illness until she heard it on the news," said Fitzpatrick.