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In England, the Easter public holidays see many of us get a four-day weekend.  Schools are on holiday, roads are jammed, airports overflowing and much of the country indulges in chocolate, either in the form of eggs or bunnies. This year we also enjoyed some great weather. Fortunately, May looms, which brings another two holidays for us to recover from previous holiday excesses/hard work (delete as appropriate). 

A treat associated with Easter is the hot cross bun. Not only do they enjoy a specific association with the religious element of the Easter festival they are also delicious (toasted, with butter, never margarine). More relevant for this blog though they also generated a fabulous newspaper headline. The South African Herald newspaper ran with a story under the banner Relax – hot cross buns will not make you drunk. Traffic Police had issued a statement that motorists could enjoy their hot cross buns without fear of failing breathalysers tests.  This followed an apparent “panic” on social media after a video showed individuals failing a breath test after eating just three bites of a hot cross bun.  It is a fine example of how panics and urban myths get started. Eating or drinking a range of substances immediately before blowing into a breathalyser can create false positives. This had been evidenced on a police training video which had then been shared on social media.  No apparent malicious intent but the story caused such concern that the police felt obliged to issue a press release to quell concerns. If only all such media storms were so benign in impact. I must also comment that the wonder of the internet ensured that the accompanying advert to this news piece provided the Easter trading hours for a local chain of liquor stores!     

Sadly, the relationship between news stories and health issues are not always harm free. Looking at current news stories about measles we see a situation that says much about the issues and problems facing public health in the 21st century. The issue of vaccinations, especially for children, has long been a subject of controversy. It evokes powerful emotions and raises legitimate questions about the rights of the individual, religion, the duty and role of the state and the value and trust people place in medics and science. Possibly more recently the desire for an attention-grabbing headline, or need for clickbait, has also become a factor. 

Yet we should not forget that resistance to vaccination predates Jenner. There is an English engraving from 1802 showing individuals who had been exposed to cowpox (which then provided protection against smallpox) having cow heads erupting from their body. There was concern that vaccination was an attempt by man to interfere in God’s will and that messing with the natural order of things could have all manner of undesirable consequences.  Clearly, vaccination was not considered by many to be safe. In England, the Vaccination Act of 1853 made smallpox inoculation mandatory for children.  Penalties could include prison. There was popular opposition and even riots, which led to the eventual repeal of the criminal sanctions in 1898.

More recently though the developed world has seen a phenomenon where the readily available and apparently obvious benefits of vaccination are being increasingly spurned by parents. This can be seen in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Italy, Japan, Australia and many other countries including the UK. Confidence in vaccines, faith in established medicine and the state are in apparent decline. Now let us be clear. In some countries, bad hygiene practices or problems with specific vaccines have occurred. These have sometimes had tragic results. Almost any vaccine programme has some potential degree of risk, very little in life can be 100% guaranteed to be risk-free, what is evident is that in many countries the understanding of the realities of risk against the potential benefits are ill understood or have been misrepresented.  Which brings us back to the role of the media. In the UK one of our popular tabloids generated massive interest by promoting concerns that the MMR vaccine was causing autism. Repeatedly the public was told there was insufficient evidence that the existing vaccine programme was safe. I remember it well as a parent who at that time had to make the decision on whether to “risk” having my child inoculated or not.  We were blessed with an excellent and reassuring Health Visitor who placed risk in perspective and didn’t neglect to highlight the harm measles itself could cause.

Now the research that some journalists picked up and which fuelled massive public concern on has since been entirely debunked. The main newspaper responsible has in more recent times promoted the importance of vaccination against measles, but it and its peers remain hungry for attention grabbing headlines which often create concern, fuel despair or reduce complex issues to simplistic right/wrong positions. This causes enough problems when dealing with mainstream health stories.  They can also wreak havoc when dealing with more sensitive issues such as substance use, youth violence and protection of sex workers. 

But we are not helpless, we should promote evidence-based approaches, interventions that support individuals and communities in overcoming adversity. Harm reduction doesn’t need to be shy or seem lacking in aspiration, we don’t all need to agree, and we should be careful of our use of headlines and facts.  To end on a positive note, a recently appointed head of another British tabloid when interviewed said he had thought to reduce the brutality of its news coverage and stopped “promoting dubious stories about miracle cures for cancer”.   We all have a role in helping new and old media produce less dubious health stories and in doing so improve public confidence in what can be achieved.

 

 

Monday, September 09, 2019
With City Health 2019 in Melbourne now only weeks away, a headline in the papers caught my eye. According to the annual Global Liveability Index- whose criteria include stability, healthcare, culture, education, environment, and infrastructure- the Austrian capital Vienna narrowly beats Melbourne to the top spot. Of course, such rankings are open to debate and dependent on what you choose to measure but it’s fair to say the occupants of city halls take a degree of pride in seeing “their” cities topping the charts.
Monday, September 02, 2019
This is not the blog I was planning to write. My intention was to look at developments in managing the Night Time Economy across a number of cities, an area where there is innovation and positive developments. Instead I feel compelled to look at an issue where the UK and others are demonstrably going backwards. Battles we thought had been won in fact appear lost, progress has not just stalled but been significantly reversed. It poses hard questions for many organisations and for individuals, including myself. So, come with me as I look at drug related deaths.
Monday, July 29, 2019
I write this on a day when London is experiencing, what is for us, exceptional temperatures. Overhead power lines and train tracks have warped. On some routes passengers have been advised to avoid travelling if possible, and many employers have encouraged staff to work from home. I suspect many who did travel to their workplaces were drawn by the prospect of effective air conditioning as much as personal work ethic. This great City was unusually quiet, apart from the pubs and bars who were doing a roaring trade. Who would begrudge people a pint of beer or a glass of wine when it’s so damn warm, especially when by delaying travelling an hour or two, the journey home may be made a little more tolerable?
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Last week I met with someone who, having just completed a Masters in Epidemiology, is keen to work in the health field. Over a hot chocolate I outlined my perception of the current big issues relating to substance misuse, our most vulnerable populations and the policies and structures we have in place to address these issues.

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City Health International
Founded in 2012 City Health International is a network of individuals and organisations engaged in the study of and response to structural health issues and health behaviours in the urban environment.
For the first time in history the majority of the world’s population now live in urban environments and the proportion continues to grow. As national governments struggle to deal with the pressures and demands of growing urban populations against a backdrop of financial deficits and uncertainty, it is increasingly left to those working at a city level to provide the leadership and support needed to tackle key health issues.