Highly infectious: scare stories

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Has the country lost its marbles? From the newspapers that have crossed my sickbed over the past 10 days (I have been recuperating from a minor op), there has been an overwhelming stench of fear. Meat (whether beef, lamb or French), vaccination (polio), rail travel (nationwide), air-travel (economy class) - all, allegedly, threaten life and limb. Not to mention cold remedies (containing an ingredient that causes strokes), electrical appliances (causing infertility) and herbal medicines (can aggravate asthma).

Has the country lost its marbles? From the newspapers that have crossed my sickbed over the past 10 days (I have been recuperating from a minor op), there has been an overwhelming stench of fear. Meat (whether beef, lamb or French), vaccination (polio), rail travel (nationwide), air-travel (economy class) - all, allegedly, threaten life and limb. Not to mention cold remedies (containing an ingredient that causes strokes), electrical appliances (causing infertility) and herbal medicines (can aggravate asthma).

It has been hard to make sense of it all. I felt this keenly when my wife announced last Friday she would drive to Gloucester to collect our daughter, who had been staying with her cousins, rather than face the disruption on the trains. In doing so she exposed herself and her offspring to at least 100 times the risk of death or disability on the roads for the sake of avoiding a delay at Paddington. Should I have reported her to social services?

For me, the key passage of the Phillips report into the mad cow disaster is this: "At the heart of the BSE story lie questions of how to handle hazard - a known hazard to cattle and an unknown hazard to humans." And later Lord Phillips adds: "A recurring theme has been growing public suspicion and dissatisfaction that important information was not being shared and discussed openly."

Risk is unavoidable in life; no human activity is free from risk and those who insist "safe" must mean "zero risk" are deluding themselves. The correct approach when risks are uncertain - if I may paraphrase Lord Phillips - is to ensure the public are properly appraised of them. People are then free to dig their own graves, as it were.

Will this be enough? I doubt it. If governments can't make decisions on the basis of unsatisfactory evidence, what chance have the public? Take Sir William Stewart's report on mobile phones published earlier this year. "We conclude," it said, "that it is not possible at present to say that exposure [to radiation from mobile phones] even at levels below national guidelines is totally without potential adverse health effects, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach."

Have you noticed mobile phone owners taking the recommended "precautionary approach" and limiting phone use? No, neither have I. Have you noticed consumers heeding the warning of the head of the Food Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs, about BSE having possibly infected sheep? Or the advice from Professor Peter Smith, acting chairman of the Government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee that French beef could be more hazardous than British because it is not subject to the same tough controls? No, nor me. This should not surprise us. Scientists have warned for over 40 years about the risks of tobacco but more than one-in-four adults smoke.

The message here is that it is not enough to share information on risks - we have to communicate them meaningfully as well. Risks that count are those attended to by your nearest and dearest, that feature in newspaper headlines or are otherwise drawn to your consciousness. Risks that are undermined by advertising (tobacco), neglected by the media or fall from public awareness are deemed to matter less. The language of risk increasingly dominates our lives - but no one is translating it.

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