28 June 2005

Whom to believe

No I’m not talking about the Michael Jackson trial.

There was some disquieting news recently from the world of medical research. Ibuprofen, the generic pain-killing drug, marketed under various household names, may – may – increase the risk of heart attack.

This was followed by general advice from on high to keep on using it!

Not for the first time there is something odd about the research. Heavy users of the drug are the only people at real risk (it is alleged) but such people take high doses of the drug in order to relieve severe pain caused by other very serious illnesses. So is it the drug that increases the risk of heart attack, or the illnesses themselves?

The fact is that all drugs cause some side effects. Obviously some effects are more serious than others. Forty years ago it was the notorious thalidomide that caused severe birth defects and, understandably, the world has since been wary of new drug developments.

Testing has of course been improved out of all recognition world-wide but pieces of research carried out in universities, some more obscure than others, can be picked up by the media who are never more excited than when they are pedalling the latest shock-horror scare.

What may or may not be true of ibuprofen is true (or not true) of the whole family of drugs known as NSAIDs – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But the prestigious US Library of Medicine has for years listed the following possibilities related to ibuprofen – headaches, dizziness, nervousness, upset stomach, stomach pain or cramps, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, gas, ringing in the ears, blurred vision, swelling of the hands, feet ankles or lower legs, skin rash, itching – and I’m leaving out a few other indelicate matters not to alarm my readers.

I’m reminded of other health scares based on highly controversial research.

There was the amazing Dr Arped Pusztai who claimed that rats in his Scottish laboratory suffered organ damage after being fed with genetically modified spuds.

Before that there was Andrew Wakefield who asserted that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine may cause autism and Crohn’s disease. Exhaustive research carried out later has disproved the link – it just so happened that Wakefield was also discovered to have had a certain ‘conflict of interest’ in his own research programme.

The devastating point is that those who have not had the MMR vaccine are indeed susceptible to the targeted diseases in later life and there is now an epidemic of mumps among age groups who, for different reasons, did not have the MMR jab.

Mark Twain had the best advice.

Don’t read too many health books. You might die of a misprint.

Bringing home the bacon

I visited my local service station-cum-supermarket the other week, part of a chain whose corporate slogan is ‘local shopping at the heart of your community providing the best retail services’.

Overcome by patriotism I chose the vacuum packed Irish smoked rashers from the lakelands of County Fermanagh in preference to all that foreign rubbish from Denmark.

I should have realised I was on to a bad deal when I opened the pack to be confronted by a table-spoonful of brine. I was therefore paying for brine at £6.99 per kilogram, the same rate as the bacon itself. There’s clearly more profit in brine.

It was quite the worst bacon I have ever eaten. No, I tell a lie. I didn’t eat it. I spat it out. The stated ingredients were pork, water, salt and preservative E250. E250 is the chemical sodium nitrite.

According to Wageningen Universiteit in the Netherlands (one of the world’s leading food science universities) ‘nitrites are precursors of (possibly carcinogenic) nitrosamines, which are formed in the stomach from nitrites and proteins’. I don’t understand all that but I don’t like the sound of it. They also note that nitrites are highly dangerous for infants. I agree that infants aren’t much into smoked rashers but that news is not particularly cheerful for people of any age. Information about side effects gleaned from the EU health ministries also includes skin disorders, alteration of blood pressure and intestinal upset – these I do understand.

So, for the very first time in my life (I swear) I delivered a note by hand to the said supermarket suggesting they might reflect my opinions back to the supplier in County Fermanagh. As there was no response I faxed the supplier and I also emailed the supermarket chain’s HQ.

That was some weeks ago. Result? Nothing. No reply from any of the three parties concerned.

The possible moral of this story is that, if our agriculture sector wants customers to exercise a local preference, it must create products of good quality and give some thought to customer service. As for exports, the good people of Denmark are unlikely to be seduced by such an unspeakable product from Fermanagh.

Worse to come.

Friends on a recent visit to Northern Ireland enthusiastically ordered ‘the full Irish breakfast’ at the ferry terminal’s restaurant. The lady behind the counter gracelessly pointed out there was no such thing in these parts – only the Ulster fry. My friends accepted the local, more politically correct, alternative. We don’t do Ulster fries, said the lady behind the counter. Catch 22, Ulster style.

Perhaps we have one or two things to learn about customer service.

14 June 2005

The first signs of Springer

Mr Jerry Springer has made the mind-boggling claim that our television talk shows are ten years behind those in America. If true, it could mean that, ten years from now, our own talk shows may have descended to America’s present standard. The prospect is not pleasing.

The descent could well be accelerated by the arrival of Mr Springer himself on our hallowed television turf. Back home Springer makes just one programme per week. We are down for five.

For years Robert Kilroy-Silk did a sort of a tell-us-your-problem kind of show until the BBC found out what he thought about foreigners. Trish stepped the format up a gear and now Jerry will bring you the full I-slept-with-my-husband’s-lover format. (Work that one out for yourselves.)

In the line of duty I have watched the new arrival on ITV – unable to take the full dose but just enough to confirm my worst fears.

All the Springer ingredients are in place – including the sad participants who want their most intimate personal problems and failures exposed to millions. Intelligence seems generally to be in inverse proportion to obesity.

The procedure is as follows. Sad person A is called upon to tell his/her tale of woe and outlines the simple requirements necessary to solve some inner turmoil. The audience is clearly moved. I just want to throw up.

Enter sad person B, stage right, who takes the now-traditional beeline towards A. Heavyweight bouncers struggle to avoid possible hair-pulling and eye-gouging but allow a feline exchange of claw-to-claw abuse.

This marks the now customary surprise stage when it is revealed that person A, contrary to earlier impressions, has had multiple ‘relationships’ while betrothed to B. The studio audience gasps. I really do want to throw up.

Close relatives and partners may now join the fray. Insightful opinions are solicited from the studio audience – when they are not jeering or baying for blood. The moment arrives for some avuncular advice from Jerry of the ‘why can’t you guys just get together and work things out’ variety.

They tell me that Springer is well educated, trained as a lawyer and has interesting political ideas.

He takes the view that his shows are just ‘pure entertainment’ and thus he absolves himself from all responsibility for manipulating essentially vulnerable people and, as has been established over and over again, acutely embarrassing their families and often their children.

The Romans used to throw Christians to the lions – just pure entertainment and a great crowd-puller.

See you after the break.

07 June 2005

Neither 'oui' or 'ja'

The French said NON and the Dutch said NEE but I doubt if the citizens either of France or Holland made their decisions after careful scrutiny of the European constitution’s 325 tightly packed pages.

Leave that to the politicians – always assuming that they themselves have read more than ten. They will argue, perhaps rightly, that the constitution will actually preserve national identities, decrease the stultifying bureaucracy of Brussels, introduce new safeguards, simplify and replace the plethora of existing agreements and strengthen each European economy.

Nevertheless the voters aren’t all that stupid. They do what they do for reasons – usually very strong reasons – which the political elite will ignore at their peril.

France and Holland are vastly different countries and therein lies the charm and individuality of both. They were founder-members of the original six ‘common market’ countries and shared a pioneering enthusiasm for cooperation in tackling the big issues for the common good – while the United Kingdom was still holding back.

Since those early idealistic days, the Union has expanded beyond recognisable limits. Six has become a highly disparate twenty-five and more very poor countries will be cashing in.

France and Holland took the word of the politicians and accepted the euro. Now they wake up to its effect – or perceived effect – on the cost of living and they will be wary of highly technical economic arguments in the future. The technocrats will insist – perhaps correctly – that the migration of labour benefits both the richer and the poorer members, but that’s simply another rational claim that goes by the board.

It’s all about disillusionment. That’s something we share with France and Holland. We were taken in by the carefully oh-so-sincerely argued case for going to war. We shall not be easily caught that way again. Mislead the voters once, even twice but you will pay for it later.

And now, with pained earnestness, several political leaders argue that other countries, yet to test the will of their people, must continue with their own planned referenda. Tony Blair joined in but Jack Straw, immediately after the Dutch outcome, said the result ‘raises profound questions’, which is a coded signal for pulling the plug.

I suspect the Government will be secretly relieved if that should happen and Gordon Brown will find it hard to conceal his sheer delight. But the Tories will go mad. They will want a referendum more than ever if only to witness Tony with egg all over that ever-smiling face.

Political wars are curiously private wars, fought out in the corridors of power. We suspect they have little to do with us. So we vote NO just to get revenge.