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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Column, January 24, 2005

EDWARD Jenner had it easy.
The discoverer of vaccination didn’t have to get his ideas past an ethics committee did he?
And it would have made for an interesting conversation if he had.
“Yes, Mr Jenner, and what exactly is your proposed experiment?”
“Well, I know this milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, lovely girl, got cowpox though, and I’m going to get a bit of the nasty stuff from her pocks and deliberately infect a little lad called James Phipps.”
“Now here’s the good bit, because after James has had the cowpox, I’m going to deliberately try to infect him with smallpox, yes, I know it’s a known killer, but trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
Little James survived the experiment and vaccination was born. But even then, although it was proven that Jenner’s discovery would save countless lives, there was a Luddite minority that refused to allow their children to be immunised.
It was mainly a religious objection, as some clergy felt it was ungodly to inject people with material from a diseased animal.
Jenner only had to point to his results though, and the fact it saved so many lives soon won over objectors.
Fortunately for Jenner there was an incomplete knowledge of the immune system back then and he didn’t have to put up with suspicious parents claiming his new-fangled vaccination would ‘overload’ their child’s immune system and turn them autistic.
I wonder what Jenner would have made of the MMR controversy.
The ongoing refusal to take up a jab which saves lives and prevents suffering has now resulted in a mumps outbreak in North Wales.
More than 1,500 cases of the disease were reported in the region last month – a 25 per cent rise on the previous year.
So what, those of you who have decided to rely on luck rather than vaccination to protect your child from it, might think, mumps is a bit of a comedy disease isn’t it? Swollen cheeks, a few days off school and that’s it.
Well for most children maybe. Provided your child is one of the lucky ones that gets a mild infection.
There is no treatment for mumps. If there are complications it can leave boys infertile. Serious complications can mean meningitis.
Prior to 1988 mumps was the commonest cause of viral meningitis among children. You know what they introduced in 1988 don’t you? That’s right – MMR.
So there are now 1,500 people in North Wales infected with a disease that could, in a worst case, lead to an unvaccinated child developing meningitis.
I wonder what the parents of those children who have not had the jab are doing to prevent them coming into contact with those infected with mumps?
Not very much is my guess, they’re relying on luck because they don’t trust science. They did that in Jenner’s day and smallpox was killing one in three people it infected until he came up with a means of preventing it.
Now more people are getting mumps and if that’s happening more children will be getting measles and rubella as well.
Again, most of the time they’re not fatal, but the complicated cases can be and the effect of a pregnant woman coming into contact with a child infected with rubella can be terrible the unborn child can develop defects of the heart, eyes and brain as a result.
So your unvaccinated child might shrug off a case of rubella, but are you keeping him or her away from every pregnant woman? It’s an airborne disease so that means keeping them away from any public place where they might infect someone.
Again, my suspicion is not. Those who are prepared to take risks with their own children’s lives on the basis of pure suspicions are likely to display the same cavalier attitude to the health of those they do not even know.
And measles, well, we all know that measles kills don’t we? According to the World Health Organisation it is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable childhood mortality. There are 30 million cases every year and 875,000 deaths caused by this preventable disease.
And yet despite this fact the NHS has had to formally warn parents against the practice of ‘measles parties’ where they would deliberately put their children in contact with an infected child in order to infect them and so build a natural immunity to the disease.
This in spite of the fact that the complications to measles, which include pneumonia and encephalitis, are quite common and that the death rate, though low, is one per thousand. You wouldn’t want your child to be that one in a thousand would you, just for going to a party?
Parents have a right to choose not to give their children MMR. Sadly their children are too young to assert their right to be protected against these diseases.
But if you’ve chosen not to immunise your child, what are you doing to protect tem now there is a mumps outbreak in North Wales?
And what will you do when measles arrives? Trusting to luck might not be enough.

GIVEN the fact that it was reportedly Gordon Brown who scuppered our chances of having a national holiday on St David’s Day it’s a bit rich him now suggesting a day to celebrate Britishness.
It’s rather odd to prevent a special day for the Welsh, an identity which means something to people, and then promote a celebration of Britishness, which means very little.
The strength of Britain, and the reason its composite parts have not split much earlier in its history, is that being British always mean being Welsh, Scots or English. It has always been a composite identity.
When people are able to express what they like about being British, what they most often describe are the attributes of their particular corner of the UK.
And surely if the idea of being British is to survive, then that it its only hope, to celebrate its constituent parts in all their diversity rather than some fictitious lumpen identity which none of us recognise.
And Gordon could make a start by loosening his grip on his wallet and giving us a holiday on St David’s Day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Column, January 17, 2005

I DON’T doubt that some bicycles lay idle this weekend.
Worried parents will have kept their kids indoors, or in cars, not wanting them to be claimed so randomly as the four cyclists killed near Abergele on Sunday.
And who could blame them for that?
After all, here was a group of cyclists on an organised ride, in large numbers, perfectly visible and riding sensibly. If they aren’t safe, then can it really be safe to cycle on the roads?
Investigations will continue, but this was no case of road rage or speeding. The driver hit black ice and skidded into the cyclists, as simple, and tragic, as that.
Whether anything could or should have been done beforehand
If the cyclists had set out a minute later all that would have happened is a near-miss, something anyone who goes out on a bike has a multitude of to tell you about.
But they didn’t, with imperfect timing they were in exactly the spot they needed to be to be hit by that car when it hit that ice. And so a father saw his son die, and other families have been left without fathers, brothers, sons as a result.
Almost immediately questions were asked about the safety of cycling – with the implication that anyone who indulges in it is clearly taking an unacceptable risk with their life.
And the statistics would seem to bear the critics out - with cyclists being the only category of road user where the death toll is rising.
But reliance on such figures ignores the fact that cycling is becoming more popular and even more kids will have had a bike sitting under the Christmas tree this year.
But before those bike are put away unused in the garage, or worse flogged on eBay, let us remember that the reason we are so shocked by this terrible accident is because of its rarity.
Thousands upon thousands of people go out every day on bicycles and do so perfectly safely.
The health benefits of cycling for the majority vastly outweigh the risk of injury or death. In fact cycling has probably saved many more lives through increased fitness than it has ever cost in crashes.
I know it is all too easy to say that when four families are grieving though. But this weekend cyclists still made the journey out onto the roads of North Wales.
Perhaps a little more cautiously, and certainly their thoughts turned to those who lost their lives doing just that a week before.
But why take the risk? Why go out on a bike in the face of such apparent danger.
Because, after the first lung-bursting minutes when your legs ache, your back aches, your ankles hurt, your fingers are numb and the cold penetrates the very marrow of your bones, all of a sudden that all stops.
You crest a hill, your breathing suddenly becomes easier, you hit your stride and it is just…joyous. When Radio 4 asked listeners what was the greatest invention ever, what did they vote for? Not the light bulb, or even radio – but the humble bicycle.
I used to drop down the flanks of vertiginous hills in Wales with nought but a polystyrene helmet between me and my demise.
Nowadays the pace is more sedate, due to the presence of my two-year-old son strapped to his child-seat on the back.
I hope our outings are the beginning of his lifelong love of cycling for him. And when the time comes for him to set out on his own, of course I will worry and warn and watch him like a hawk.
But cycling is a little bit of freedom, and we should not abandon such things easily.
What we need are not fewer cyclists on the roads, but more. In Holland, where bikes seem to outnumber their riders, drivers have to look out for cyclists because they have sheer weight of numbers on their side.
Here we’re still seen as slightly odd, eccentric even, to favour a mode of transport that actually involves our own effort.
The whole issue of cycling has become politicised, partly because of a vociferous and well-funded motoring lobby that sees any curtailment of motorists ‘rights’ as the equivalent of ripping up the Magna Carta.
But now is not the time to make political points on the part of cyclists. Firtsly there is a difference between a cyclist being killed in a road rage attack and one who dies because of a patch of black ice. Both could perhaps be prevented, but the nature of the problem is entirely different.
Those who seek to make drivers take more care should not use this case to prove their point until they are sure of what exactly happened here.
In the meantime the most fitting tribute to those who died is exactly what happened at the weekend – a legion of their friends and fellow cyclists taking to the roads to enjoy the sport they loved so much.


IN Pwllheli, supermarket plans, it would seem, are like buses – just when you least expect it, two come along at once.
The traders of the town are already fighting tooth and nail to prevent a Walmart development. Sorry, did I say Walmart, silly me, that’s the vast US superstore giant name for it, I really mean Asda – much more cuddly.
At a packed public meeting – and try getting 113 people out on a cold January night for anything else and see how far you get – 108 were against the development, two were undecided and three were for it.
But just when they thought a two-story Asda was bad enough it’s rumoured that outline planning has been granted for a site at the opposite end of the town and word is that Tesco are interested.
Which would leave the independent traders of Pwllheli caught between two loss-leading, price-cutting, stack ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap even if they don’t want it, supermarket behemoths.
And what a fantastic experience for the shopper Pwllheli is going to be in 10 year’s time when every independent shop has gone to the wall.
Never mind, you’ll have Tesco or Asda to choose from, just like you have in every other benighted town in the UK.
Still, it seems Pwllheli Chamber of Trade is up for the fight and let’s hope the unstoppable tide of supermarket clones is turned back on the Llyn.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Column, January 10, 2006

WELL the Lib-Dems have showed just how different they are from the mainstream parties by the way they treated Charles Kennedy.
That is, not different at all. In fact, when it comes to backstabbing machinations I think Machiavelli would have trouble obtaining membership because he was too much of a bleeding-heart, erm, liberal.
Kennedy’s drink problem did not seem too much of an issue when he was effectively supporting the campaigns of those Lib-Dem MPs who queued up so readily to betray him over the weekend.
And what was truly nauseating was the way they couched it in terms of concern for him, while making it perfectly clear he had to go no, straight away, don’t look back, pack your bags and go.
You wouldn’t mind so much if he was being betrayed by people who had themselves contributed one iota to the fabric of British political life.
But half the time you were left saying “Who was that?” when yet another recently-arrived Lib-Dem MP bravely turned traitor now they knew it was safe to do so.
If they are the best the Lib-Dems have to offer then the political wilderness awaits because one thing Charles Kennedy did was give them a human face. Now we know he had some all too human frailties.
One person to come out of it with his reputation intact was Lembit Opik. He was consistently and vociferously loyal throughout and at a time when politically it would have been expedient to have been unavailable for comment. That was a brave thing to do.
He is the sort of man you would want as a friend, which is as good a reason as any for wanting him to be your MP. Or your party leader.

I HAD the misfortune to get stuck in Grantham on Friday.
Not a place I would recommend to spend on a railway platform on a cold January afternoon.
Fortunately the train was uncharacteristically punctual and whisked me away and as I left I caught sight of the town centre.
There dominating the skyline was the “Isaac Newton Centre”. What’s this, perhaps I’ve misjudged, is this some school of science dedicated to the great man’s memory.
Do those who would stand on his shoulders to see yet further than he did, toil away in its halls of academia?
Only if they shop at Asda.
Yes, Isaac Newton – the man who gave us calculus, gravity and showed us what light was made of, the man who unlocked the secrets of the Universe and set us on a path to the stars – is commemorated by a shopping centre. And an ugly one at that.
Is this how these town planners and the architects who work with them get away with it? “Look we know it’s an ugly concrete stump, but Florence Nightingale once stayed in the town so we’ll call it the Nightingale Centre, who could complain about that?”
My theory is the uglier the building – the more famous and beloved the figure they will name it after. So if you hear of plans to build the Princess Di centre next door to you, time to get the For Sale sign up.