Top 10 Public Health Scares

There’s never been a better time for creating public hysteria. The internet allows anyone with a phone or a laptop to come up with a theory and it can spread around the globe in seconds. So, when governments announce that there might be a new disease to look out for, it can spiral out of control quickly. The public health scare is nothing new, but the over-inflated hysteria is. In the 17th century, when the public were told that they might just die of plague, it was a very rational fear that was created. And a lot of them did die from plague. But now, some of these fears become irrational very quickly, and that’s where we find our Top 10 Public Health Scares.


10. Bird Flu

Avian flu is one of those diseases that has popped up a couple of times in recent history. The first concerned the H5N1 strain, which has proved to be both infectious and deadly to humans. Since it broke out, there have been 633 cases reported and 377 deaths, mainly in Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt. So when another strain emerged in 2013 – H7N9 – there was panic and reports from China that 43 people had died. However, with one exception, it does not seem to have spread outside of China and there was a distinct drop-off in the number of cases reported after April 2013, suggesting that it’s either a seasonal virus or that the Chinese have taken effective precautions against it (i.e.  by banning live bird markets). That doesn’t stop the media still predicting that it might be the next Spanish Influenza though..


9. Foot and Mouth

Another agriculture-themed one now, and it’s the UK Foot and Mouth outbreak of  2001, which saw 6 million cows being culled, leading to devastation and bankruptcy for farmers. The outbreak was first detected on a pig farm in Essex and was thought to have been caused by the pigs eating illegally imported, infected meat. In 2007, there was another outbreak with the EU banning British beef imports immediately and the Prime Minister returning from holidays to take immediate action, including ordering protective cordons around infected areas. Thankfully, that outbreak was contained before it led to the destruction of 2001, but there was intense interest from the media, hoping to capitalize on the sense of panic. That’s why the only people to break the cordon were photographers, who were later fined and sentenced to community service. That’s what happens when you try to create a public health scare…


8. Salmonella

Of course, not all public health scandals are internet-era. Before the world wide web, the newspapers did a fine job of spreading the panic. And that’s what happened in the UK in 1988, when then-Health Minister Edwina Currie declared that eggs may contain the deadly bacteria salmonella. Her statement was as follows: “most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella” and it caused both panic and outcry. The minister was famous for her controversial statements, such as saying that Christians don’t get AIDS, and this seemed as unfounded as the rest of them. The affair died down eventually, but Currie was forced to resign and her reputation never recovered.


7. High-Fructose Corn Syrup

This is a controversy which is still rumbling on. HFCS is a cheap sweetener added to a scarily wide range of foods, including savory staples like bread. Some people are passionately opposed to HFCS, saying it is fuelling the obesity crisis and that the amount of HFCS found in an average soda is equivalent to a dose of poison. The scare started in 2004, when a research paper  in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consumption of HFCS went up 1000% between 1970 and 1990. However, later studies in 2012 suggested that the effects of HFCS have been overstated, with the Journal of Obesity  suggesting that fructose is no worse than sucrose, also known as sucrose.  So is HFCS to blame for the rise in obesity and diabetes? I think the answer is that no-one knows yet…


6. Carcinogens

Now, this particular scare came from a respected source – the President’s Cancer Panel. In 2010, they released a report on the danger of carcinogens (i.e. toxins that increase the risk of cancer) and said that the danger had been “grossly underestimated”. Suddenly, carcinogens were all around us – in household products, in barbecued food and even in a colorant in Pepsi. But the hysteria caused by the 2010 report may have been a bit of an overreaction – the American Cancer Society have published stats showing that the cause of cancer is only rarely to do with environmental carcinogens, and that the President’s Cancer Panel report “does not represent scientific consensus.” So, another thing we don’t need to worry about? Again, one that might just run and run…

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