Joan Bakewell: Warning: your children are not in danger

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The Independent Online

Back to school and the worries start. In fact they start before that first day of term. Apparently young children confronting their first day at school are subject to stress. Well, you would be. We all were. But is that any bad thing?

The response to this news implies that it is a matter of deep concern and that we should all be anxious about children being stressed. The daisy chain of worrying about worrying now infects our entire life cycle. Of course the media need stories and sociologists need subjects to research, otherwise no grants and no career. But might the whole thing be getting out of control? Is life seriously more risky now than it once was?

Anecdotal evidence is heard on every hand. My generation are particularly nostalgic for the days when we played in bombed-out buildings, walked to school alone and played away from home the live-long day without supervision or fear. The truth is you only get bombed-out buildings where bombs have been falling – very high risk – and it wasn't unknown, those live-long days, to meet men in macintoshes who would give us a quick flash and a sheepish smile. We never told anyone because we didn't know quite how to describe what we had seen.

There's a certain elderly bravado, also, about declaring how in our day we all had measles, mumps and chicken pox, along with the rest of the class. We don't mention that some of us had polio, too, and were crippled for life. Nostalgia is selective. The health and welfare of young people has never been better than it is today.

But many things have changed and one of them is the way we regard risk in our lives. We want to eliminate it entirely, living lives so safe and secure that you could die of boredom. We certainly want to protect our own families, especially the young, from the multitude of menaces that surround us, menaces that once just seemed part of being alive.

Now we are better informed than we ever were about the nature of disease, infection, the efficacy of drugs, the prospect of further scientific advances. Nonetheless we are fearful and suspicious about the MMR vaccine, alarmed by scientific tests that throw up horrific results such as those at Northwick Park Hospital where six healthy men suffered multiple organ failure after volunteering for clinical tests. We are and suspicious, too, of a pharmacology industry that lost our trust after the thalidomide catastrophe. That was the moment when the apparent blessings of science turned into a nightmare. We have never felt safe about new medical and pharmacological procedures since that time.

That's why there is such suspicion of the MMR vaccine today. A warning went out this week that things could be getting serious. So many parents are now failing to give their children the two-dose treatment that there have been 480 cases of measles this year, 120cases in Hackney alone in the last three months. Children are being put at risk of a potentially fatal disease for fear of a risk – that of autism – that remains unproven.

The MMR vaccine was first introduced in 1988, and by 1992 more than 90 per cent of children were being given the jabs. The numbers went on rising until 10 years later when Dr Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet, setting out the possibility that some children who had autism may have developed it as a consequence of the vaccine.

Dr Wakefield's research is currently under exacting scrutiny by the medical regulators of the General Medical Council. But the public didn't wait. Some 2,000 families in the UK began taking legal action, claiming that their children had been damaged. Plenty more agonise over what to do. Many of them opt for the process of having each of the vaccines separately. They are caught in the dilemma of balancing risk against risk.

The medical authorities deplore what is happening. Dr Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, says people are playing Russian roulette with the health of the country's children. Could he be exaggerating the risk?

Since the flight from the vaccine in 1998, there has been only one death from measles. Other children have borne what is an uncomfortable and distressing illness and recovered. There is, yes, a mild epidemic of measles in certain areas. How are we to gauge whether it will become the killer disease the phrase Russian roulette would suggest? Is it legitimate to be alarmist to drive your message home? Won't it simply increase a sense of bewilderment and panic?

The way we perceive children at risk is often through the prism of our own personalities and how we respond to the alarmist nature of news coverage. In fact, the incidence of accidents of all kinds, including traffic accidents, drownings, suicides, and murders, have shown a decline in Britain in recent years. Statistics suggest that rates of child abuse have decreased too, though prosecutions for cruelty have risen.

Newspapers are rightly fulfilling their obligation to inform us where neglect, culpability and just plain cruelty are evident. But that has to be balanced in our own minds against the millions of lives that make no headlines because they are so normal and so safe. Other headlines, of course, rightly report straightforward stupidity. The casual exposing of small children to vicious dogs is beyond any kind of risk assessment.

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