Comment »Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 5:28 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

What was that story about the boy and the wolf? It seems that the Daily Mail, who, over the years, have been more concerted in their efforts to terrify the public than George A. Romero, have got to the point where their own writers are numb to the possibility of genuine danger. This is what Christopher Booker had to say about swine flu:

Too many people seem to have a vested interest in talking up these panics beyond what the evidence can support, from scientists dependent on promoting scares for their funding to politicians who recklessly use scares to show their concern for our welfare. We in the media, it is only fair to add, are far from blameless in this respect.

What a generous concession he makes in that last sentence! If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s previous output, you’ll know that he has form when it comes to dismissing danger. Booker wrote dozens of articles claiming that white asbestos is completely safe, even alleging that it is ‘chemically identical to talcum powder’. His vociferous denial of climate change has led George Monbiot to dub him ‘The Wikipedia Professor of Gibberish’. The man’s complete inability to assess risk makes you wonder how he has managed to live to the age of 71 without stepping in front of a bus.

The last occasion when our Government was panicked into sending a health warning to every household in the country, for instance, was in 1987, when Edwina Currie sent out such a pamphlet, Don’t Die Of Ignorance, warning us of the terrifying threat of Aids.

No one can doubt that HIV/Aids has remained a serious problem, to date responsible for some 18,000 deaths in the UK. But back in the late 1980s we were being solemnly warned that, as early as 1990, we could expect the death toll to reach a million.

Compared with the 9,000 people who die in NHS hospitals every year just from MRSA and C.difficile, even those 18,000 deaths in 20 years can now be seen in a rather more sensible perspective.

It’s remarkably easy not to be scared of Aids, isn’t it? It may be extremely deadly, but it’s also extremely easy to prevent. I’m not sure on what grounds the distribution of pamphlets can be characterised as a ‘panicked’ reaction to a deadly infectious disease whose spread can be prevented if people know what simple measures to take. Perhaps the government’s ‘panic’ was instrumental in keeping the death toll in the UK as low as 18,000.

Booker is not the only columnist at the Mail who is snorting at the threat of swine flu. Martin Samuel had this to say:

More people won the Lottery last week than contracted swine flu. And do you know anyone who won the Lottery?

This used to be a country that was healthiest in adversity, almost irritatingly cheerful when the chips were down. Now, some poor soul gets a cough in San Diego and half of Swindon goes to the doctor.

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at St Bart’s hospital in London, warned that swine flu might travel south and mix with bird flu to form — get this — Armageddon flu. The end of the world, in other words: although no doubt it could be averted with an increase in his research grant.

It is time to get a grip. Swine flu, bird flu, Armageddon flu? Yes, and pigs might fly, Professor.

I have a lot of time for Martin Samuel as a sports writer. I used to enjoy his football coverage in the Times a lot – as his many awards testify, he was always able to offer a much more insightful analysis than what you get from the legions of ex-players who stumble into the media upon retirement. But when it comes to epidemiology, I think his analysis is a little wide of the mark. Lotteries, unlike infectious diseases, don’t pick more and more winners every day.

This is not some tabloid fantasy. We are on the brink of a pandemic. That’s not to say that some of the media’s coverage hasn’t been irresponsible. One thing I particularly disagree with is the prominence some papers have given to projected numbers of cases or deaths. Given the degree of uncertainty in such estimates I really don’t think they should be the basis for headlines. But swine flu is undoubtedly a serious cause for concern, and it’s tragic that many people have become so sceptical of the news media that they are happy to dismiss the current situation as a scare story. I can’t help but think how messrs Booker and Samuel might feel if their loved ones become casualties.

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