The Joys Of Modern Life 48. Health Scares

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The Independent Culture
THE WEATHER these days is so predictably unpredictable that to even mention it is a bit of a conversational cul-de-sac. Yet in pubs, offices and shops across the land, we must talk about something. So it is just as well that never a week goes by without a health scare for inspiration.

Health scares have what journalists call the "Hey Doris" factor, meaning that people will talk about what they have read or seen on the news. As in: "Hey Doris, it says here that smoking causes impotence. Who'd have thought?" And Doris might take another drag on her ciggy and reply: "I wonder if that was my Frank's problem. He was incompetent at the end."

The most popular health scares are those involving either food, our children, or ideally, both. Edwina Currie was on to something when she announced back in the late Eighties that most of the eggs in Britain were infected with Salmonella. Who didn't have half a dozen in the fridge at the time?

Of course, you can't make the proverbial omelette without breakages and the farmers were none too happy. As for the rest of us, we became authorities on food hygiene and the correct cooking time for boiling an egg - overnight.

Since then, no health scare has been sacred. Cows, sheep, pigs, peanut butter, sugar, baby foods, vaccinations, airline travel, tampons, disposable nappies - you name it, there's a lurking danger.

Which is what attracts us. Our lives are rather dull most of the time. So we import danger to create drama and interest. "Just think," says a barfly on his fifth pint of the day. "If you had eaten nothing but Belgian pate on toast for the last year, you might die." A sobering thought.

Diseases also provide ample opportunities for health scares. Take meningitis. It is a relatively rare illness. But it is contagious, more prevalent among children and potentially fatal. Sadly, some youngsters do die. But due to the almost paranoid reporting of every case, and with Posh Spice getting involved with publicity, most parents are incredibly aware of the symptoms and lives are being saved. Why, one sick child with a temperature was only minding his own business at a bus stop with his mother when a member of the public lifted the wee mite's jumper and, having spotted the tell-tale rash, made a diagnosis which did indeed save a child's life.

But the big story of the moment is GM foods. Most people don't really understand what the fuss is all about, although you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Genetic modification suggests a brave new world, fraught with potentially freakish dangers. Just the thing for a rant at the butchers. And as we part company to go our separate sedentary ways, there's just time for the comforting remark: "Still, at least we have our health."

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