Now, this was a terrifying outbreak and, like the new strain of bird flu, it began in China. The first cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome were reported in November 2002, but thanks to the secrecy of the Chinese government, it wasn’t made internationally public until February 2003. That’s the point at which Liu Jianlun, a doctor who had treated SARS patients, arrived in Hong Kong for a wedding and stayed in room 911 of the Metropole Hotel. He became ill and died shortly afterwards but precautions weren’t taken to isolate him, so within weeks the virus had spread all over Hong Kong, with 80% of cases being traced back to the hotel, or the hospital where Mr Jianlun had died. Soon after, the rest of the world went on red alert, with overseas travellers being checked for SARS symptoms at airports. It never made it far out of Asia, with Canada being the worst affected Western country, but it was a terrifying time for anyone who’d been to Asia and the effects in China and Hong Kong were devastating, with 648 known deaths. Chilling stuff, and a hard lesson in isolating germs.
4. GM Food
SARS was a real threat to global health, and the panic whipped up by the newspapers was not entirely unjustified, given the horror one traveller could cause. The GM food debate, on the other hand, spiralled out of fact into fantasy very quickly, with the phrase “Frankenstein food” used to head up hysterical articles about how we would all soon be eating cow-pig hybrids and tomatoes as big as our heads. In actual fact, most genetic modifying is done to make plants more resistant to insects, or to make them grow quicker. The cow-pig is still a way off. There are still concerns about the risks of GM food, but there has been little evidence to suggest that humans have been damaged by eating it. But why let that get in the way of a good story?
3. Swine Flu
This was another gift to journalists, with newspapers unable to stop themselves printing pig-based puns and pictures. But it was no laughing matter, with the outbreak in 2009 claiming 14,286 lives worldwide. However, it wasn’t as bad as feared, and to put the figures in context around 250,000-500,000 people die of ordinary seasonal flu every year. It was the newspapers that hyped up the threat to an unwieldy extent, with talk of mass graves and the end of life as we know it. It later emerged that the doctors advising the WHO were in the pay of the pharmaceutical companies, who had developed a swine flu vaccine and were keen to sell it. So, the threat was real but the media and the WHO blew it up into a scare which was not only panic-inducing, but also disrepectful to those who did die.
And while we’re on the subject of people in the pay of pharmas, here’s Andrew Wakefield’s scandalous piece of research into the effects of the MMR, released in 1998. Allegedly funded by the makers of the single vaccines and full of procedural issues, Wakefield et al’s report showed a link between the MMR combined vaccine and autism. It caused panic and a drop in vaccination rates, which still affects public health today. The Wakefield report has long been discredited – not least by ten of the paper’s authors – but celebrities like Jenny McCarthy continue to fight the anti-vaccination cause, leading diseases like measles to flourish still in non-vaccinating communities.
1. Mad Cow Disease
And number one of our list is the BSE crisis that hit the UK in the mid-90s. It was another opportunity for journalists to demonstrate just how good they were at animal-based puns, but the actual threat was minute – to date, only 177 people have actually died of CJD, the human form of BSE (“Mad Cow Disease”). But it did put a massive hole in Britain’s exports, and British beef has been tainted with the Mad Cow label ever since (although the foot and mouth outbreak didn’t help its reputation). The then Conservative government, led by John Major, tried to get the E.U. ban overturned but it stayed in place until 2006 despite publicity stunts like Agriculture Minister John Gummer feeding his 4-year-old daughter a beefburger in front of the cameras. An embarrassing episode all round, but thankfully not with a massive human cost.