Miles Kington: The scary reality behind health alerts

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The Independent Online

No, the man I go to is Dr Seldon Pastel, director of the Institute for Medical Scaremongering, who knows everything about health scares. Usually, he has created them in the first place. He is the man who brought us the news that too much salt was bad for us. He was also the man who brought us the news that too little salt is just as bad for us.

Not that he brought us this news direct. He sells his health scares for a vast fortune to our national press and media, who need a regular intake of health scare stories to send up our blood pressure. Every time you read that people on long-haul flights will die if they don't get up and go for a long walk, or that honey may contain a deadly virus, be sure that Dr Pastel is getting a large cheque through the post for his inventiveness.

So it was to him that I turned for enlightenment on the newest health scare, the one about Hepatitis C. Is that one of his?

"I am afraid it is," he boasts. "Nothing very new about hepatitis, of course. But it is actually quite nice to have one of our old familiar ailments back in the headlines. These days, we so often have to rely on brand new inventions, like Sars and DVT, that it's a relief to go back to something like hepatitis which everyone knows does really exist.

"Of course, we rebrand it a bit. Give it a new letter, for example, to make it seem more deadly. Hepatitis C, see ? At this rate, we could get away with Meningitis B! Ah - I must make a note of that..."

And he laughs till he begins to choke. I bang him on the back. He recovers.

"Thank you," he says. "Though I may not be thanking you next year."

Why not?

"Oh, these old wives' tales about banging people on the back when they choke, and drinking out of the far side of a glass to cure hiccups - we're thinking of starting a scare that all these old-folk remedies may actually be very bad for you."

Are they really bad for you?

"No, of course they're not. It's just a health scare we're planning, that's all."

Just a moment. Something he said just now. Inventions like Sars and DVT ... Were those killer epidemics fabricated, then? Was there no such thing as Sars or DVT?

"Of course there was. Or was there? Have you ever met anyone who suffered from Sars?"

N-o-o-o-o ...

"Or DVT?"

No.

"But you believe they both exist?"

Yes.

"Then it exists. If you believe it exists, it exists. Do you believe that 'avian flu' exists?"

I don't know.

"But you must know! We have invested a lot of time and money and energy in avian flu! It would be a complete waste of investment if you ignored it!"

What investment?

"Well, more rebranding for a start. We always felt the name 'chicken flu" was never likely to prove a big threat, so at great expense we had it changed to 'avian flu'. Two advantages there. One, it sounded more scientific, because most people don't know the word is just Latin for 'bird-based'. Two, it sounded very like 'Asian flu'. Avian... Asian... see? Nobody took 'chicken flu' very seriously. But 'avian flu' is being taken very seriously indeed."

But Hepatitis C is here already, surely?

"Yes, it is. Or is it? With Hepatitis C, we have introduced a brand new scare variant. We have convinced people that those who have got it are not even aware of having got it. Brilliant! A health scare without symptoms. What could be scarier than that ? Not even a Ricky Gervais health warning..."

And Dr Pastel laughs till he chokes again, though when I go to bang him on the back, he shies away from me. Here is a man who even takes his own scare stories seriously. That's impressive.

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