Friday, September 24, 2004

Another CJD scare

'Thousands warned over vCJD risk,' says BBC News, reporting on new advice from the UK Health Protection Agency. Four thousand people, mostly haemophiliacs, have been warned that they may have received contaminated blood products. The warning follows the deaths of two people almost certainly infected with vCJD from blood transfusions. The government was keen to stress that the risk was very low and that their action was 'the most precautionary measure' - though that didn't stop headline writers from referring to a potential 'epidemic' and 6,000 possible 'victims'.

The government continues to cause unnecessary alarm by taking extraordinary measures to combat a very rare disease. Since vCJD was first identified in 1995, 143 people in the UK have died from it. The number of new cases has already started to decline, falling from a peak of 28 in 2000 to four this year. Not a single case has been identified in a haemophiliac.

Compare this with the very real problem of infection with hepatitis and HIV suffered by haemophiliacs in the past, with thousands suffering illness and many dying. The risk from vCJD is merely 'theoretical' since the clotting factors given to haemophiliacs may not even carry the prion protein thought to cause the disease, especially after being separated out from the other parts of the blood and treated.

Moreover, there appears to be very little that anyone can do that they don't already do. These warnings say, 'We're pretty sure you can't get it now if you haven't already, but there's a very slim chance you could have a very nasty, incurable disease, one that we can't even test for until you die. We just thought you'd like to know.'

As one haemophiliac told the BBC: 'It is just like HIV and hepatitis C all over again, I now face a lifetime of fear watching for signs of the illness.'

This is not the first time that the government has overreacted in this way. The government always argues that a precautionary approach must be adopted. But this singularly fails to account for the harm that is done by these measures, which have probably caused more harm than the disease itself. It seems that maintaining a sense of proportion is quite beyond them.

(First published on Spiked's Don't panic page.)

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