Dr Phil Hamond, GP and broadcaster

Oh, where would we be without health scares? A nation so enthusiastic about the national lottery (you’re 14 times more likely to die watching it than to win it) is never going to have much of a handle on the concept of risk. So instead of getting all hot under the collar about our collective innumeracy, maybe we should just sit back and enjoy.

I’ve got a cut-out-and-keep scrapbook of health scares going back 20 years and it’s the best cure yet for burnout. See if you can spot which of these headlines is a hoax: "Town panics at killer bug in ostrich abattoir”, "Mutant virus ate my face” or "Mad cow disease will kill 10 million, says scientist”.

Of course they’re all hoaxes, but they all unfortunately appeared on the front pages of our newspapers. In fact, one paper once ran these two headlines on the same day: "Vitamin E cures cancer, says top expert” and "Vitamin E causes cancer, says top expert”.

A striking thing about health scares is that very few of the direful predictions made at the outset actually come to pass. Some scares are amplified by ludicrous over-reaction – BSE, to name but one – but in most cases the novelty wears off in a few weeks.

For those poor so-and-sos charged with pouring oil over troubled waters, it’s easy to despair at the bizarre and irrational behaviour of patients and the press – and even I lost my rag during the great contraceptive pill scare of 1995.

I mean, there’s no such thing as a zero risk pill, but you’re three times as likely to die in an accident in the home, four times as likely to die playing soccer, eight times as likely to die on the road and – if you’re 35 years old – 167 times more likely to die from smoking 10 cigarettes a day. So why did women flush their pills rather than their fags down the loo?

But before we blame the punters, it’s worth remembering that every health scare starts with a "top expert”. The MMR debacle was triggered by "top” research in a leading journal. The "Sheep get BSE” fiasco was caused by top experts getting the samples mixed up. (Clue: the sheep are the ones without the udders.)

In an ideal world, science would rely on the gradual, rational, honourable accumulation of information over time. But alas, scientists rely on immediate public exposure of their single piece of meaningless research so that they can be awarded their next grant and feed their rodents. If you feed anything to a rat in large enough quantities it will get cancer or you’ll cure the cancer you gave it in the first place. Either way, you get a headline and a research grant.

The latest scare as we go to press is SARS, which has killed no-one in the UK yet, whereas 1500 people a year die from falling down the stairs. So why isn’t there a STAIRS panic?

Ironically, the stairs death toll looks set to rise now that people are sporting those absurd face masks and can’t see where they’re stepping. (The SARS manoeuvre is great, however, on a crowded train. Just slap a Beijing sticker on your bag, cough once – and hey presto! You’ve got the carriage to yourself.)

My own theory on how to handle health scares is to do the opposite of what the scare-mongers suggest. So I eat beef, make calls on a mobile phone, vaccinate my kids – and use the stairs fearlessly.

But the Government, alas, is prone to panic. Falling take up of MMR could be met with a foot-and-mouth style cull of all children in measles-infected nurseries, and all contiguous nurseries within a 10-mile radius. You have been warned.

Dr Phil is back on tour with 89 Minutes to Save the NHS. Details at www.karushi.com

Guidelines in Practice, June 2003, Volume 6(6)
© 2003 MGP Ltd
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