Wednesday 15 October 2014

The horrific killer that succumbs to soap and water

I have never much cared for horror films myself, but their huge box office appeal attests to the deep and widespread human need to scare ourselves witless.

Whether it is ghosts, terrorists, alien invaders, zombies, microbes, velociraptors, sharks, mad axemen or dear old global warming, most of us love to fret that there is something lurking out there that is going to get us.

And in the long run, of course, something will. But I suspect it won’t be Ebola, despite the feverish interest it is currently arousing in the British media.

Exactly why are our news bulletins currently being led by an outbreak of a disease that has so far claimed around 4,000 lives, nearly all of them in places far, far away? Particularly when, as our man on the spot David Banks pointed out on Friday, it comes well down the running order of bulletins in West Africa itself.

To put the Ebola death toll in some sort of context, malaria kills over 600,000 people every year. Influenza, which you are somewhat more likely to contract in the UK, typically kills 250 – 500,000 people annually, rising into the millions during its regular pandemics.

True, there is no cure for Ebola and it sounds a very unpleasant way to die. But it is far from invariably fatal and, having made the mistake of reading a book called “How We Die” a few years ago, I can tell you with some confidence that there aren’t many ways to go that make you think “Ooh, I rather fancy a bit of that.”

There are other reasons for positive thinking, not least the fact that it is really quite hard to catch Ebola. The key way to protect yourself is to take great care not to touch anyone who has already got it. And, if you fail on that front, the critical back-up is to remember to wash your hands afterwards, with soap and water.

If I were pitching this as a plot outline for a top ranking horror movie, I think I might give up at this point and move swiftly on to my other brilliant idea about a giant man-eating Venus flytrap.

I have reached the point when my school contemporaries are starting to succumb to the ravages of age. One is currently recovering in hospital following major heart surgery. Another recently announced his early retirement following a stroke.

Both were and are considerably slimmer and fitter than I am, but then those who have already handed in their dinner pails were, without exception, “the last person you would expect”.

One of my mother’s favourite bits of Alnwick folk wisdom was “You’re frightened of the death you’ll never die”. Having observed the departure of her entire generation, born in the decade before the First World War, I can vouch for the almost universal truth of this claim.

Yes, there was the odd grotesque fatty who keeled over with a heart attack and one or two smokers who duly succumbed to lung cancer, but she and most of her contemporaries lost their lives to things that had never even registered on their worry radars.

Luckily death seems to be something that absolutely all of us can manage, when the time comes, without unduly embarrassing ourselves or those around us. Thus putting it, in my case, in a considerably easier box than drinking soup.

It has faded of late, but for years the thing that made me wake up in a cold sweat was not the prospect of extinction but the thought of having to take my A-levels again. Surely death will be easier than that, with the added bonus that there will be no danger of marking errors or re-sits.

The real stuff of nightmares

Until then, I shall continue trying to follow my late mother’s advice that death will get us whether we worry about it or not, so we might as well not worry.

However, if you absolutely insist on worrying, may I suggest that you focus on excessive consumption of meat pies, cigarettes and strong lager rather than Ebola?

Book yourself a flu jab, arrange your holiday somewhere other than Sierra Leone and always, but always, take care to wash your hands.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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