Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The price of complacency

When the call goes up for a return to old-fashioned values, I don't think this is what it's supposed to mean...

Five babies have died in the biggest whooping cough outbreak for two decades, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said.

While we may never eradicate these potentially fatal childhood diseases, the scientists and epidemiologists who are racking their brains over the cause of this resurgence could do worse than talk to a few parents.

When there was an outbreak of whooping cough in our town, I told the primary school that the Urchin - then 6 - had not been vaccinated, having suffered an adverse reaction to the first dose.

Despite my warnings, I arrived one afternoon to fnd him sitting at a table next to a friend who - to my certain knowledge - had been diagnosed with whooping cough a few days before.

The fact that the Urchin then fell ill and missed several months of school is neither here nor there; what is important is why the other child was in the classroom spreading the infection in the first place.

It turned out that the doctor had told the boy's mother that, as long as he was taking antibiotics, he could go to school 'as all the other children there will be immunised'. His mother, anxious to get back to work, happily dropped him off at school the next day, despite his constant coughing.

He wasn't the only one - the school was full of children coughing and spluttering, some of them tearful and evidently feeling unwell. Immunisation doesn't prevent the disease entirely - it just spares the child the seemingly endless cycle of whooping, choking and vomiting that was in store for the Urchin.

Meanwhile, a friend withdrew both her older children from school for a month, frightened that they would bring the infection home to her new-born baby - the school, while happy to accept pupils clearly displaying symptoms of the illness, was markedly less than sympathetic to her plight.

The needs of working mothers and the complacency of medical professionals, with their misplaced faith in science, may well have combined to contribute to this supposedly inexplicable outbreak:

Increased disease activity has been linked to "educational settings" and "healthcare settings", the authority said.

Where once children were quarantined to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, they are now allowed to circulate freely, on the hubristic assumption that mass immunisation and antibiotics have negated the risk - never mind that increasing antibioic resistance means this policy is operating on borrowed time.

It's another manifestation of 'one size fits all' thinking which could, one day, prove catastrophic.


  1. "'one size fits all' thinking which could, one day, prove catastrophic."

    I'm sure it will, and just as sure that lawyers will become involved.

    Then teachers will react defensively and send sniffly kids home.

    Then we'll have another issue.

  2. It's already happening with administering medicines etc.

    Actually, speaking from the chalkface, I have to admit that my heart sinks when a pupil starts to sniffle; I was laid up for two weeks with swine flu during the last epidemic and I'm sure it was thanks to the miasma prevailing in the fourth form classroom.

  3. Isn't interesting how malaises we think we've eradicated somehow come back? It takes constant stringency. Polio was a bad one around the time of my childhood.

  4. JH - I'm sure we are looking at the seeds of our eventual destruction.

    A friend's daughter has recently come out of intensive care, to great relief.

    Her family were told, following lab tests, that the infection from which she was suffering was resistant to all known antibiotics except one; if that did not work, there was nothing that could be done.

    We are already seeing a resurgence of drug-resistant TB in our inner cities; add to that the resistance resulting from veterinary and agricultural antibiotic use and you have a recipe for disaster.

    Not only does the medical profession play fast-and-loose with the risk of infection; mass air travel means that we are at more risk than ever before of global outbreaks of disease.