Saturday, March 22, 2003

Rhyming jargon

I've realised the truth about the US's tactics in Iraq. 'Shock and awe' is not a military policy: it's rhyming slang.

That's right. As part of the promotion of all things Mockney, the Pentagon have got Guy Ritchie in as a special adviser. Hence, 'shock and awe': war. As in, 'So, Mr President, 'ow's it going with the ol' shock and awe?'. Look out for other geezer phrases as 'Were there chemical warheads on those Pete and Duds [Scuds]?' and 'The heat is melting me Turkey Shoots [boots].' They were going to refer to guns as 'hot cross buns' but dropped it for fear of offending the Muslims.

It's all part of the attempt to make this war seems less like a war. 'Smart bombs' - good. 'Hand-to-hand fighting' - bad. Maybe they're a bunch of Frankie Howerds.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Anthrax vaccine is actually safer than most routine vaccines

Report from BBC News:

"Anthrax jabs declined by thousands of British troops serving in the war on Iraq are safe and cause only mild side-effects, research has found.
Ministry of Defence figures show that up to 12 March, almost half the servicemen and women sent to the Gulf had refused the jab amid fears of a repeat of Gulf War Syndrome."

"But the latest study suggests just 11% of military personnel immunised against anthrax develop reactions and in most cases these are confined to soreness or swelling around the site of injection."

The point, however, is that nobody believes what the government says anymore, a mood only strengthened by the war. So, I'll bet the reaction from many to this report will be to dismiss it as tainted.

AIDS timebomb in eastern Europe?

According to the World Health Organisation, there are one million HIV-positive people in the former Soviet Union. Admittedly, there are something like 200million people in the former Soviet Union, but it is still a lot of people (assuming that these estimates bear some approximation to reality). And the problem could get worse due to intravenous drug use and unprotected sex.

The figures are compiled by the Institut de Veille Sanitaire.

They note that AIDS cases and deaths have been falling in recent years in the West, due to the use of anti-retroviral drugs. Figures for central Europe are still low. There were 6 cases of AIDS per million population in central Europe, as compared to 20 cases per million population in the West. In the East, the rate is 349 per million in the last year.

The cost of compensation

I've written a short piece about the growing cost of litigation to the National Health Service.

Unhealthy claims

The trouble with targets

One of the recent trends in the UK has been for government to micro-manage major services. In the absence of grand political ideas, politicians are portraying themselves as the best equipped to run services rather than having a vision for transforming society. The upshot is the proliferation of targets. But if you focus solely on the meeting of targets, they tend to get met at the expense of other things.

This is neatly illustrated by a story today about the National Health Service. The government is auditing hospitals for their accident and emergency response times. The reaction from some hospitals has been, allegedly, to take on extra staff for the one week when they are being audited. Firstly, it completely defeats the object of the audit. Secondly, it means that resources are wasted meeting a target that could be used better elsewhere.

So, what will happen? We will end up, no doubt, with an even greater number of targets so that hospitals can't get around them so easily. But the more targets, the harder it is to meet them all, and the less the targets coincide with actual need.

A&E survey 'fiddle' claims, BBC News, 21 March 2003

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Is food addictive?

Here is an interesting article by Peter Marsh of the Social Issues Research Centre in response to a cover story in New Scientist. There is also a bit of a ding-dong between Marsh and Graham Lawton of New Scientist, although I'm not sure it clarifies much.

The story relates to the current case in the US where fast food companies are being sued for selling an addictive product that causes obesity. The suggestion is that fast food produces chemical reactions in the brain which the consumer becomes dependent on. They thus indulge in such food beyond their bodily needs.

What the case does illustrate is a society where individuals have ceased to take responsibility for their own lives, but where the authorities are too nervous to tell them where to stick their lawsuit. The result is that food gets blamed for making people fat rather than the person eating it.

The New Sensationalist

BSE: Britain Scared of Eating?

One story I've been following for some time now is the 'mad cow disease' panic in the UK. It is an interesting case study in the risk society.

BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) was first identified in cattle in 1986. In the 1990s, cases of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD) were identified in young people for the first time. CJD is generally a condition affecting older people. This variant CJD has been linked to BSE. This is still a theory, and there are alternative explanations for the sudden appearance of this disease. What is clear, however, is that vCJD remains a rare disease.

The latest figures bear this out. Far from increasing exponentially, vCJD cases seem to be falling. In 1995, there were three cases identified. In 2000, the peak year, there were 28. Last year, there were only 17.

What is interesting is how the government's reaction has been out of all proportion to the danger posed by the disease. It is driven by consumer anxiety, an unwillingness to trust in its own science and by the precautionary principle.

UK CJD statistics

Articles about CJD

Another 'killer bug'

I wrote this piece for spiked's Don't panic page.

'Airline passengers spread mystery killer bug', said The Times (London) on 17 March 2003. 'A mysterious deadly type of pneumonia is travelling the world by airliner and there is no known cure.' The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an alert about the new, flu-like respiratory disease on 15 March, at which stage there had been around 150 cases of the illness and possibly nine deaths. Most cases have been in China and Vietnam, or in patients related to those countries. WHO director general Gro Harlem Brundtland says: 'This syndrome, SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], is now a worldwide health threat. The world needs to work together to find its cause, cure the sick, and stop its spread.' Air travel is suspected to be one route of transmission, and air passengers in Hong Kong and Taiwan have been pictured wearing face masks.

However, the numbers affected by the illness are still tiny. In Hong Kong, there have been three deaths in a population of 6.8million people. The disease may not be curable but it is clearly not usually fatal, either. It is not especially contagious. Professor John Oxford of Queen Mary's College, London, told the BBC, 'It is rather slow-moving, rather restricted to families and hospitals, not a rip-roaring affair, but still very nasty.... I wouldn't expect there to be a massive outbreak in other parts of the world.' Nor is it particularly new - there was an outbreak in November 2002 in the same region, and a similar infection in Holland in the same year.

This is just the latest in a long line of weird and wonderful illnesses to briefly burst on to the front pages, only to disappear just as rapidly: remember Ebola virus, MRSA and necrotising fasciitis? All of these diseases are nasty, but they affect relatively few people. The fact that such stories can gain currency is indicative of a time when we feel isolated and powerless, unable to put risks into proper perspective - a mood that is exacerbated by thoughts of war and terrorism. Infectious disease is not quite a thing of the past, but our ability to identify, contain and treat such illness makes it a relatively minor threat. What is more of a threat is our loss of faith in our ability to deal with such problems.


HK doctors 'identify killer disease', BBC News, 19 March 2003
UK man may have 'mystery illness', BBC News, 17 March 2003