Sex, cars, crimes and…vaccines

A round-up of February's health scares, lifestyle panics and other blown-up fears.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

February 2002 was the month of the ‘comeback panic’ – with some familiar scare stories hitting the headlines.

It started with MMR. On 8 February, Andrew Wakefield – the doctor whose 1998 paper suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism kicked off the stink in the first place – said he ‘trusts and believes’ parents who are convinced that MMR caused their child’s autism (1). ‘MP mums’ clashed in the House of Commons in mid-February, after Tory Julie Kirkbride accused New Labour public health minister Yvette Cooper of ‘undermining public confidence by not allowing public choice’ over single vaccines (2). And a London doctor topped it off by calling for ‘less blind confidence’ in MMR.

On 20 February, the government announced a new ad campaign to ‘restore faith’ in MMR – but assured us that, because ‘the public no longer accepts government reassurances about health risks’, the ads would not be too ‘didactic’ (3). ‘Often scaremongering does not matter’, said prime minister Tony Blair, ‘but in this case it does’ – simultaneously showing his support for the MMR vaccine and for turning a blind eye to certain types of scaremongering (4). But it was his government’s dithering over the safety of MMR that helped fuel the panic over the past three years.

Amid all this ‘groundless hullabaloo’ (as one journalist called it), you might have missed the headline ‘Research clears MMR’ on 8 February (5). Scientists at the Royal Free Hospital in London studied case records for 500 children with autism between 1979 and 1998 and found that the proportion of children with ‘developmental problems or bowel disorders’ did not change significantly over that time – even though MMR was introduced in 1988. If there was an association between MMR and autism, said the researchers, there should have been a rise in cases of autism after 1988. Their conclusion? That there’s ‘no relation whatsoever’ between MMR and autism (6).

‘I hope this is the end of the argument’, said Professor Brent Taylor, who headed the Royal Free’s research team. Not likely. As one report pointed out, this is the third time these researchers have ‘conducted a study of this type….[and] each time, the results have been the same’ (7). In April 2000, the UK Medical Research Council issued a statement saying, ‘There is no link between MMR vaccination and autism or inflammatory bowel disorders based on the evidence that is currently available’ (8). Two years later there is still no evidence of a link – but still the panic rumbles on.

The fear of the MMR vaccine now seems to exist in a parallel universe to the distinct lack of evidence that it is linked to autism. In February, such fears led to rising levels of measles among toddlers (9), as figures revealed that the national take-up of MMR had fallen from the recommended 90 percent of children to 84 percent of children – and as low as 73 percent in some London boroughs. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued on spiked: ‘…the junk science at the root of the MMR-autism link damages the families of children with autism as well as undermining the national immunisation programme, one of the great success stories of modern medicine.’ (10)

After the vaccine panic came the comeback sex scare. At the end of February, the government said it wanted to ‘raise the status and quality’ of sex education, after figures revealed rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teens – especially CHLAMYDIA. A doctor at a genito-urinary clinic in Wales hit the headlines when she claimed to have seen ‘something like a 200 percent rise [in chlamydia] over the past few years’ (11), while one ‘sex expert’ described the ‘dramatic rise’ in cases of chlamydia as ‘a huge threat to young women’.

In reality, the ‘dramatic rise’ is largely a result of increased awareness of chlamydia and the medical authorities’ efforts to encourage more and more women to get tested. There was a sharp and sudden increase in chlamydia cases at the end of the 1990s – rising by 20 percent in men between 1999 and 2000 (totalling 27,702 cases), and by 26 percent in women (totalling 36,928 cases) (12). This was precisely the time that the Department of Health started its posters-in-pub-toilets campaign encouraging women to have the chlamydia test, and when the Public Health Laboratory Service organised a pilot involving 18,000 sexually active women between the ages of 16 and 25 to examine the prevalence of chalmydia in the UK (13).

The ‘dramatic rise’ tells us that chlamydia is more likely to be diagnosed today, rather than more likely to be contracted. And even if chlamydia is on the rise, it is very rarely the serious disease some make it out to be. In a small minority of women, it can cause pelvic inflammation and sometimes infertility – but in the majority, it presents no symptoms at all (which is why it’s called the ‘hidden STD’), and is easily treated with a course of antibiotics.

Chlamydia has become the new AIDS, in the sense that it is the latest medical justification for why it’s bad to sleep around, at a time when moral arguments about sex hold little sway. This became clear in February, when those who raised the spectre of the ‘hidden STD’ also bemoaned the fact that young people today just aren’t scared by AIDS anymore.

According to one report, ‘In the 1980s and 90s sexually transmitted infections dropped dramatically as young people reacted to the government’s “Don’t die of ignorance” campaign. But…the group most at risk now – aged 18 to 24 – are too young to have seen the adverts or been impressed by the dire message’ (14). The solution? ‘I don’t think we need a return to things that are overtly designed simply to scare’, said Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, ‘but we do need to have systematic education of the public’ (15). Enter chlamydia.

Maybe young people aren’t scared of AIDS because it is very rare, and because the heterosexual epidemic predicted during the 1980s scare campaigns never materialised. But health experts and government bodies won’t let facts like that get in the way of blowing up another STD – one that isn’t even that serious – and using it in an attempt to scare teens off sex.

After sex, came cars – with politicians and journalists announcing the full-scale arrival of CARJACKING in the UK. ‘Carjacking is a growing problem, with 90 reported cases in London alone last year’, said BBC News on 4 February (16). Within days the number had risen tenfold, with another report putting the number at ‘900 carjackings in London last year’. By 10 February, the Guardian was reporting ‘1200 carjackings in the capital last year, including the violent theft of high-value cars and cases where teenagers were dragged off their mopeds’ (17). Talk about rising crime levels. Whatever the number, home secretary David Blunkett sent a message to carjackers everywhere: ‘Get involved in this and you will go down for a very long time.’ (18)

When I asked the Metropolitan Police about carjacking in mid-February, I was told that there were not 1200, 900 or 90 violent carjacking incidents in London in 2001 – there were about 40. As a Met spokesman said, ‘There were 1200, shall we say, car crime incidents – and a very small proportion…were carjackings.’ (19)

What’s the chance of getting carjacked in London? According to the London Research Centre, now part of the Transport for London wing of the Greater London Authority, there are about 300,000 car movements a day in Greater London, or about 110million car movements a year. If 40 of those 110million movements are hit by carjackers, that makes something like a one in 2,700,000 chance of getting violently carjacked on any particular journey in London per year. It’s so unlikely, it’s negligible.

So why the front-page frights, the hand-wringing editorials and the political pronouncements about the ‘deadly threat of carjacking’? Taking a look at the victims and perpetrators of the crime gives you a clue. Almost all cars stolen in carjacking incidents are BMWs or Mercedes, worth anything from £30,000 to £60,000 – and the majority of carjackings in London are carried out by youngsters in and around south London. So the victims are mostly the middle classes, and the perpetrators are mostly black. In an age where we’re all supposed to have gotten over class hang-ups and where race and crime is an ever-more sensitive issue, carjacking is the perfect metaphor for middle-class Middle England feeling under threat from criminals and black youth.

This was best illustrated in the Daily Telegraph feature on ‘Mothers who look over their shoulders’ – all about carjack-fearing, middle-class mums who run the gauntlet of sending their kids to a posh prep school ‘on the doorstep of south London’s criminal violence’ (20). The mothers said they constantly feel ‘at risk’ when venturing into south London’s not-so-leafy suburbs, ‘always lock their doors’ and ‘take very sensible measures’. Later in February, residents of a posh part of Kensington hit the headlines when they hired private security guards to patrol their streets and to ‘keep out carjackers and muggers’.

The national obsession with carjacking tells us more about Middle England’s blown-up fears of crime than about anything happening on ‘the street’ – with much of the media coverage focusing on the fear of carjacking rather than on actual carjacking incidents. Next time you read a carjacking story, remember this guide to the lingo: ‘Mercedes driver’ is the new middle class, and ‘carjacker’ is the new black.

The other February crime panic was MOBILE PHONE THEFT. On 11 February, one report warned that ‘more than 50 percent of street crime in [London] now involves mobile phones’ – and that ‘mobile phone crime hit 700,000 people last year’ (21). Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens had his own warning for mobile phone thieves: ‘We are arresting more street robbers than ever – 27 percent more than last year – [which] means that mobile phone robbery is rapidly becoming a very risky crime to be involved in.’ (22)

Can it be true that 700,000 people were the victims of mobile phone thefts in 2001? Not quite. The only hard police figure that exists for mobile thefts is that about 25,000 were stolen in street robberies from mid-2000 to mid-2001 – the rest comes from a Home Office study that includes offences recorded by the police, a MORI poll of mobile phone users and a survey of schoolchildren.

As the report points out, many people who lose their mobiles report them as having been stolen for insurance purposes, and the survey of the 15,000 schoolkids was mostly done in deprived areas – meaning it ‘will overestimate the “average” experience of schoolchildren’; ‘some pupils may not have read the mobile phone questions carefully enough’; and ‘there may have been a degree of exaggeration’, as ‘phone theft targeted at young people has been much in the news and some children may have wanted to jump on the bandwagon’ (23).

It isn’t only kids who ‘jump on the bandwagon’ of the latest crime. Whether it’s carjacking or mobile phone theft, when a crime hits the headlines it also seems to become more prevalent. Crime statistics should always be taken with a pinch of salt – they tell us far more about perceptions and politics than about patterns of anti-social behaviour. If you exclude the blown-up phone thefts from the robbery stats, then, as one report points out, ‘robbery might have fallen nationally in the region of minus-three per cent, instead of [there being an] increase’ (24).

There were some happy health stories in February. On 13 February, US researchers revealed that VIAGRA does not, as was previously thought, ‘increase the risk of a heart attack in men with coronary heart disease’ – meaning that the NHS in Britain could finally lift its ban on prescribing Viagra to older men who want to carry on being carnal but have heart conditions (25). And towards the end of February, MOBILE PHONE MASTS, which some say emit dangerous levels of radiation, were found to be safe: ‘A study of electromagnetic emission from mobile phone masts near 100 schools in the UK has shown that they are all way below international maximum recommended exposure guidelines.’ (26)

But some media reports still couldn’t help raising concerns. One claimed that there are still ‘other potential problems’ with Viagra – while on mobile phone masts another said, ‘we still do not know what effect such low-level RF radiation may have on the long-term health of children’ (27). It seems that, for panicmongers, every silver lining has a cloud.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

January: Food, drink, drugs and holidays, by Brendan O’Neill

Don’t Panic Button

Jacking the facts, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Channel 4 News, 8 February 2002

(2) MP mothers clash over MMR, BBC News, 26 February 2002

(3) Minister outlines steps to boost image of MMR jabs, Guardian, 21 February 2002

(4) See Hansard, House of Commons, 6 February 2002

(5) Research clears MMR, BBC News, 8 February 2002

(6) Research clears MMR, BBC News, 8 February 2002

(7) Research clears MMR, BBC News, 8 February 2002

(8) See MMR: the facts, 10 Downing Street Press Office

(9) More measles cases confirmed, BBC News, 6 February 2002

(10) See Immune to the evidence, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(11) Concerns over sex disease ignorance, BBC News, 21 January 2002

(12) The UK’s most commonly sexually transmitted diseases, 26 February 2002

(13) Sex disease hits one in 10, BBC News, 17 September 2001

(14) Sex diseases soar among generation no longer in fear of AIDS epidemic, Guardian, 27 February 2002

(15) Sex diseases soar among generation no longer in fear of AIDS epidemic, Guardian, 27 February 2002

(16) The growing trend of carjacking, BBC News, 4 February 2002

(17) Armed police take on carjack violence, Guardian, 10 February 2002

(18) Blunkett’s warning to carjackers, BBC News, 4 February 2002

(19) Jacking the facts, by Brendan O’Neill

(20) ‘The mothers who look over their shoulders’, Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2002

(21) Police target mobile phone thieves, BBC News, 11 February 2002

(22) Police target mobile phone thieves, BBC News, 11 February 2002

(23) Mobile Phone Theft (.pdf 317 Kb), Home Office Report

(24) Phone theft boosts street crime figures, Bruno Waterfield, ePolitix, 8 January 2002

(25) Viagra no danger to heart, BBC News, 13 February 2002

(26) School phone mast emissions low, BBC News, 4 March 2002

(27) School phone mast emissions low, BBC News, 4 March 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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