Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Column, January 31, 2006

YOU might have noticed an unusual quiet descend upon North Wales this morning.
Once the dawn chorus had sounded its final note, another chorus of whistles was strangely absent.
All over Gwynedd, the 28,000 kettles, from Bangor to Y Felinheli, that have been working overtime since last year making water drinkable were at last given a well-earned rest after Welsh Water sounded the all-clear.
It will come as a relief, I’m sure, to be able to turn the tap and have some confidence that what comes out is safe to drink without raising it to boiling point first. Though whether Welsh Water’s customers have that confidence immediately remains to be seen.
My bet is that quite a few people, particularly those with young children, will continue the routine of putting on the kettle before they risk drinking the water.
And for all the inconvenience, expense and worry of the last couple of months, customers are being offered the princely sum of £25.
Not that money means very much when your confidence in the very stuff of life has been undermined.
Not that it is the water supply that is to blame mind you. Oh, no, no. That hasn’t been proved as yet, you see. And now we’re told that it might be impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of the outbreak.
Hmm. This is what Sherlock Holmes would call a two-pipe problem. So let’s don our deerstalkers and stoke up the old Meerschaum with Golden Shag and see if our powers of deduction can solve this mystery.
Firstly what has happened? An outbreak of cryptosporidium.
How is cryptosporidium spread? Well, what do all 208 victims have in common? Either they all eat at the same cafĂ©, share the same loo, or else, and I realise it’s a million-to-one shot, they share some product in common…such as…erm…water?
Where have investigators been concentrating their efforts? Llyn Cwellyn, a reservoir that serves the affected area.
What advice have people been given? Boil your water.
Who is paying out £25 to customers inconvenienced by the whole sorry mess? Welsh Water, but these are ex gratia payments, you understand, because there’s been no indication of a breach of water standards by Welsh Water
Hmm, so this is a tricky one isn’t it? Could it be the water supply, or is it the Cryptosporidium Fairy?
And yet, and yet, we hear the constant refrain that the water supply has not been proven to be the source. How very, very reassuring.
But it if it isn’t the water supply, then isn’t that a bit more worrying? Because if it isn’t the water supply, then cryptosporidium has found some new way to infect its victims.
And I think we would all have been a bit more reassured if those investigating the outbreak had been a bit more open about what had been happening and where, instead of hiding behind bogus concern for ‘confidentiality’ of individuals.
It insults the intelligence of the people of North Wales to claim that you cannot give out detailed information about what exactly in God’s name is going on without giving individuals a degree of privacy.
In fact, such actions can look distinctly like an attempt at news management of a situation which rapidly became unmanageable.
Did they think that victims of this nasty little infection wouldn’t contact the media of their own accord? Well they were wrong?
Did they think that any journalist with even half a brain wouldn’t be able to dig up that which they weren’t telling? Well they were wrong.
Once you tell 70,000 people to boil their water, you’ve got a PR disaster on your hands and it’s time to come clean, not use Data Protection as a smokescreen.
Of course some of the answers to the above may be provided by the findings of the Drinking Water Inspectorate investigation into the outbreak.
The findings of the DWI investigation will be made public we are told. But its proceedings will not.
Why is there no public inquiry into this matter? Anything else will leave customers, however unreasonably, suspecting a cover-up.
To restore public confidence the inquiry into what happened must be as transparent as, well, water.

TWO e-mails arrive in response to the piece I wrote last week on the mumps outbreak in North Wales.
The first from Nerys Lloyd-Pierce:
“I read your piece on MMR with great interest. I am working on the Welsh
Assembly Government MMR catch-up campaign, launched in response to the sharp
rise in mumps cases.
If your readers are worried about mumps they should contact their GP and
have the jab - it's never too late to receive protection.
Women of childbearing age need to make sure they are protected too, because
of the risk of rubella. Catching rubella in pregnancy can cause serious
problems for the baby - heart problems, sight defects etc.”
The other came from a mum who did all the right things, but to no avail:
“After reading your column in today's Daily Post I feel compelled to write regarding the mumps outbreak. It isn't only unvaccinated children who are suffering.
Two of my three daughters have now been infected with this unpleasant disease - despite having received the MMR vaccinations. My three year old had received one dose of the vaccine, which should have afforded her 90% immunisation, before contracting the disease. This was before she was due her second jab, which she has subsequently received.
Both my 7 year old and 10 year old daughters had received their jabs when offered by our surgery, but the eldest still got mumps. Quite a few of her classmates, who had also been immunised, also got the disease, although no other pupils in my youngest daughter's nursery class was infected.
What should we do now that measles is around? If their uptake of the mumps vaccine wasn't sufficient, how much protection have they got against measles and rubella?
I don’t think anyone would say that vaccinations are a total answer. But they do cut down the incidence of disease dramatically. Perhaps if more parents had taken up the MMR vaccine for their children, the pool of infection would not have existed to catch Sandra’s daughters.
As Ms Lloyd-Pierce pointed out, it’s never too late to get protection, so if you’re worried about your child, go to your GP and get the jab. You’ll be protecting them, and countless others too.

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