Tuesday 15 May 2007

Ignorance is bliss

I never cease to be amazed by the apparently invincible ignorance of the great British public. Despite blanket, well-spun media coverage, there is never any shortage of people willing to respond to surveys by saying “What smoking ban?” or “Oh, has Tony Blair resigned?”. Even, perhaps, “Who’s Tony Blair?”

I try to console myself with the thought that it’s all a tease, a fine example of our legendary sense of humour, leading many of us to affect to be village idiots whenever we are confronted by someone with a clipboard or a camera.

Alternatively, could it be that people are deliberately cutting themselves off from news and current affairs because their content is so relentlessly depressing? To explore this theory, I conducted a little survey of all the health scares that made the national press during April 2007 (excluding the first of the month, for obvious reasons). They averaged a convenient one per day.

It was a particularly bad month for women, who were warned at the start that they were raising their risk of breast cancer if they ate as little as 2oz of red meat per day; and at the end that they might well die of womb cancer if they used an electric blanket. In between those, they were advised that hormone replacement therapy increased their risk of contracting ovarian cancer; a research finding published just ten days after a new study demonstrated that the previous warnings linking HRT with heart attacks and strokes were completely wrong.

Most of the usual consolations were ruled out, with yet another study demonstrating that women’s brains were more severely affected than men’s by drinking alcohol. Even a nice bacon sandwich looked to be off limits, with American researchers claiming that cured meats cause lung damage.

You certainly wouldn’t want to end up in hospital, where the superbug Clostridium difficile is now killing as many people as die on the roads. Patricia Hewitt ruled that it was right to deny NHS treatment to smokers and the obese, perhaps influenced by a shock study revealing an epidemic of back problems among nurses, caused by trying to lift poorly fatties. There was no point in going on a diet, though, as this was proved just to make you fatter in the long run. Elsewhere in our “envy of the world” health service, it was revealed that an NHS dentist had been driven to suicide by sheer pressure of work.

There was no respite for those with children, with one authority pronouncing that toddlers under three should not be allowed to watch TV at all, while older age groups should be rationed to an hour per day. Nursery care was proved to be turning youngsters into yobs, and new evidence was produced to support the link between power lines and childhood leukaemia.

There were a few brighter spots. Scientists claimed to have identified genetic causes for obesity (not pies after all, apparently) and breast tumours; found that the wonder drug aspirin may help to prevent cancer; and discovered that flu jabs could also cut the incidence of heart attacks.

Clearly the only way forward is to adopt a restricted calorie, vegetarian diet, become teetotal, smash the TV and give up work to devote yourself to childcare. Though, of course, that would only work until another shock survey demonstrated the dire consequences of this approach, too.

Amidst all the gloom, one fact stands out. The human death rate remains exactly where it has been since the first ape developed ideas above its station, at 100 per cent. If you give up smoking, drinking, meat-eating and electricity, you may live a little longer. More likely, it will just seem longer. What I can guarantee is that you will die of something, probably every bit as unpleasant as the fate you have struggled to avoid. And, I venture to suggest to Ms Hewitt, ultimately just as expensive to the NHS.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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