A ticking timebomb in us all?
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the scare tactics of the health promotion industry.
Alongside warnings about the imminent threat of terrorist bombs, we now have to cope with frequent warnings from scientists and health authorities of a public health time bomb set to explode in years to come. Those alleged to be carrying these time bombs range from young people who drink or sunbathe to parents who feed their children junk food. It sometimes seems as if we might all be potential suicide bombers now.
A new study into infection rates for variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), popularly known as the human form of ‘mad cow’ disease, has prompted reports of a CJD time bomb being carried around by thousands of unknowingly infected people. But here are just a few other stories from the BBC online news, all apparently based on warnings from health experts. ‘Young face skin cancer time bomb’ (March 30). ‘Lung disease time bomb revealed’ (January 29). ‘Teen lifestyle health time bomb’ (December 8, 2003). ‘Time bomb alert over child obesity’ ( November 9, 2003). Back in 2001, it seemed shockingly extreme for a spokesman for the Stroke Association to claim that a lack of exercise meant that ‘children are becoming time bombs for killer diseases’. Yesterday’s extremism has become today’s mainstream.
Why have these reports become so pervasive, when people have longer and healthier lives than ever before? The factual basis for the dread warnings often seems at least open to question. The latest CJD study, for example, tested 12,674 appendix and tonsil samples. Just three were found to contain prion proteins that could (not would) lead to the development of vCJD. This tiny percentage was then extrapolated over the entire population to arrive at a figure of 3,800 people who just might be unknowingly infected.
Child obesity is clearly not a good thing, but as some experts point out we still know relatively little about the consequences for adult health of being overweight as a child. Last year’s startling declaration by Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency, that the ‘ticking time bomb’ of child obesity means our children will die younger than us, seemed considerably heavier on dramatic effect than on scientific evidence.
These time bomb stories are a powerful aid for those zealots in the health promotion industry for whom ‘raising public awareness’ means scaring the living daylights out of us. Things may seem OK now, they say, but wait until you see what is round the corner: do as we say today or a time bomb will get you tomorrow. By projecting current fears into the future, they can achieve the maximum impact with the minimum effort.
Yet from the forecasts of world overpopulation in the 1970s, to the forecasts of a heterosexual Aids epidemic in the UK in the 1980s, it is striking how few of the predicted time bombs go off. Take the sorry saga of BSE-CJD in Britain. Early estimates suggested that up to half a million of us could be infected from eating beef. To date, there have been 141 deaths in a decade – each one a tragedy for the family concerned, yet taken together hardly a national disaster.
Rather than rejoice at the limited impact of vCJD, however, some of the time bombers seem determined to prove that the problem is worse than we think. Thus when scientists reported that deaths from the disease had declined from a peak of 28 in 2000 to 17 in 2002, they were condemned as irresponsible. It has since been loudly reported that the number of deaths rose again last year – as indeed they did, by one, from 17 to 18.
Other health time-bomb scares look like blatant propaganda. They seek to play on the public mood of fear and mistrust (itself partly a legacy of the BSE crisis) to demand that we change our lifestyles to fit the new conformism. That is why healthy teenagers appear so often in time-bomb stories, with warnings about the dire consequences to come if they don’t stop smoking, sunbathing or having sex now. It often looks like a risible attempt to tell young people to repent of their sins, but without mentioning anything as ‘uncool’ as morality.
The rash of warnings about health time bombs can distort the priorities of medical research and practice; the latest vCJD stories led to renewed calls for disposable surgical instruments, which have already proved problematic. And they can reinforce an atmosphere of public uncertainty, leaving us prone to outbreaks of panic about SARS last year or West Nile virus this summer.
Somebody in authority should issue a warning: indulging in health time-bomb warnings could turn out to be a ticking time bomb.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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