Warning: worry can damage your health

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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How are we this morning? You haven’t, I’d be prepared to bet, been bitten by a bat and gone down with rabies. Neither, I hope, have you suffered a stroke from dashing to answer the doorbell, collapsed with a heart attack induced by eating bacon and egg breakfasts, or had your hormones sent haywire by drinking milk. Obviously you have managed to avoid being gassed on the Underground -we would have heard about it on the news.

And the children? Not been mugged at gunpoint for their mobiles, I trust; overdosed on alcopops, or, much worse, been accosted by the neighbourhood pervert on their paper round?

If none of these things have happened, you might think that you are living a normal, catastrophe-free life. But to judge by the warnings of the burgeoning risk industry, you are a member of a threatened minority.

All manner of disasters, we are told, wait round every corner. And our fear of them -however unlikely they may be -is turning us into a neurotic, fearful society.

In the past few years doom- mongers have made our blood run cold with ghastly prophesies that never turned into reality. Whatever, for example, happened to the widely forecast heterosexual Aids epidemic in the West? Terrible though the disease is, it is still almost entirely restricted to at-risk minority groups.

This week’s bat panic was one of the more preposterous. The tragic case of one man in Scotland -the first instance of rabies in this country for more than a century -sent our health guardians into overdrive. Every doctor in Britain received a fax from the Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, relaying an ‘urgent message’ about a possible public health risk. A man from Dundee had come down with a mysterious ‘rabies-like illness’.

‘All available evidence,’ it said, ‘indicates that the threat from these bats to the general public, or to pets or domestic animals, is extremely low.’ Nor is there any danger of rabies being transmitted from one human to another. So why the public health alert? Apparently the health department was worried that, because the case was so widely reported, GPs’ surgeries would be inundated by people worried that they might have got, or be about to get, rabies. BBC Online also carried a Q&A on rabies, supposedly to reassure the public.

But doesn’t all this make people more -not less -likely to panic over a risk that is infinitesimal? It is only the latest example of advice that ranges from the patronising to the ridiculous. Imagine the consequences of taking just some of this year’s scares at face value.

What would you eat? Warnings about an ‘epidemic’ of obesity have become almost a weekly event -no wonder, when the official definition of what constitutes overweight is based on the Body Mass Index, which says even the rugby player Jonah Lomu is fat.

Don’t bother seeking refuge in low-fat (but possibly high flatulence) food your joyless meal will probably be spoilt by reports that eating vegetables can give you cancer (Glasgow University study). And, of course, it’s no good jumping on a plane to escape. Remember how we were panicking a few weeks ago over deep-vein thrombosis (Aviation Health Institute) – though the chances of becoming a victim are probably about the same as being hit by an asteroid?

Sorry, I’d forgotten about 2000 BF19, the half-mile-wide lump of rock that was supposed to crash into Earth and herald the end of life as we know it. You might recall the Italian researcher Andrea Milani, who first warned that there was a one-in-a-million chance of a collision (apparently very high by astronomical standards), and then announced that actually it would come no closer than nine million kilometres (5.6 million miles) over the next 50 years. A close shave, that one.

It would be enough to drive you to drink, but of course we all know better than that. More than four pints in a night (less if you’re female) is now defined as dangerous ‘binge drinking’ (Chief Medical Officer). Recent reports suggested that regularly drinking wine could help offset dementia, whereas beer drinking could bring it on. So are we supposed to drink two glasses of wine to cancel out the effects of every pint? And women have been warned that drinking wine can bring on breast cancer, but help to stave off heart disease in old age (study co-ordinated by Oxford University).

Necking a bottled beer in a bar might not seem so cool once you understand that you could catch a serious disease from rats’ urine sprayed on the bottle while it was in the cellar (environmental health experts in Scotland).

And if you manage to stop sweating with anxiety long enough to pull a potential partner, be warned; while one recent report claims that sex is good for your health, another (University of Sheffield) says that avoiding sex is linked to longevity -a case of abstinence makes the heart go longer?

Don’t even think about having children. This year we’ve been told that breast-feeding is dangerous and so is not breast feeding (National Childbirth Trust). If we give them the MMR vaccination they might develop autism; if we don’t, they’ll get measles or mumps. If we let them have a mobile phone they could get mugged, and if we don’t they might be stranded or even abducted.

In our imaginations, at least, there are paedophiles everywhere, from the confessional box to the classroom. And as if cannabis, ecstasy and heroin weren’t bad enough, there is the new danger drug, aspirin, which we are now told should not be given to under-16s (Medicines Control Agency).

Oh, and some American research has just been published suggesting that cheerful children will die younger than their unhappy classmates -although with all the above to worry about before they even start thinking of exams and student debts, most should surely live to a ripe if rather miserable old age. Just in time to start fretting about the pensions crisis and the risk of HRT.

If you feel that you have some of the reported new stress-related syndromes, such as being allergic to work or suffering from the mysterious ‘London disease’ (a London nutritionist), be careful how you try to relax. Too much sun can apparently be risky, but so can too little. A non-taxing game of golf can pose health risks (Northumbria University report), but then so can sleeping (American study). Many of the risks mentioned here may be real, for some people in some circumstances. But why do we get them so much out of proportion? One problem is the way that risk is reported. Who can forget the confusion caused by the Home Office’s recent lurid warning of a possible gas or even nuclear attack on London, withdrawn 20 minutes later? Also, we are often confusingly told of danger in relative rather than absolute terms.

Take the reports about women, wine and breast cancer. The study claims that, if a woman regularly drinks two glasses of wine a night, her relative chance of contracting breast cancer increases by 12 per cent -a scary statistic. But when presented as an absolute risk, the same figures reveal that a 40-year-old wine drinker’s risk goes up from 0.5 per cent to 0.56 per cent while the danger to an 80-year-old increases from 8.8 per cent to 9.85 per cent.

There may of course be a need for some advice on public health and it is an eternal truism that too much of anything is bad for you. But there is one thing we need most of all to be ‘aware’ of today. It is not the risks themselves that make everything seem so dangerous. It is our nervous response to them.

Thus doctors studying such phenomena as the anthrax panic or World Trade Centre Syndrome in the US have established that the fear of terrorism poses a far more pressing threat to public health (both mental and physical) than the actual likelihood of an attack.

How far things have gone post-September 11 was brought home to me recently by a columnist in another national newspaper, who wrote about how we are ‘wandering in a fog of fear’. She and her friends in London had stopped using the Tube, were afraid to leave their children anywhere, and in one case refused to go out to buy a winter coat because ‘I just don’t want to die in some bus queue outside Selfridges’.

Yes, surely, we are at risk. We’re at risk of making ourselves sick with anxiety.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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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