Scaremongers: the new threat to children's health
The current MMR vaccination crisis, which experts predict will lead to a measles epidemic, has highlighted a new public health problem: 'riskfactorphobia' – a psychological side effect of health scares.
Thanks to the MMR vaccine scare, Britain is now on the brink of a measles epidemic. To prevent such epidemics, at least 95% of children must be vaccinated. Because of an unfounded scare, this percentage has now dropped to a highly dangerous 87%.
This is the latest example of 'riskfactorphobia' – one of the side effects of health scares recently identified by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford. A significant proportion of the population has become hyper-sensitive to health scares and warnings, and increasingly anxious about the 'risk factors' in their diet, lifestyle and environment.
SIRC warns that this effect is now set to become a major public health problem, as riskfactorphobics attempt to follow the misleading and often contradictory advice of scaremongers.
"When academics or health professionals issue statements about health risks, they should be aware of this effect," said SIRC Director Kate Fox. "The MMR story is a prime example of grossly irresponsible scaremongering. There was never a shred of valid scientific evidence for health risks from MMR – the Medical Research Council quite clearly stated that there was 'no evidence to indicate any link' between MMR and either Crohn's Disease or autism – but the MMR scare has now put the health of millions of children in serious danger."
'Climate of fear'
Even well-meaning health promotion campaigns can have adverse side effects, say SIRC, citing recent reports of what doctors call 'muesli-belt malnutrition' among children whose parents feed them 'healthy' low-fat, high-fibre diets which do not provide the calories they need for normal growth.
Over-zealous promotion of such 'healthy eating' and constant warnings about the dangers of being overweight are also now widely recognised as contributing factors in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia among young girls.
SIRC's research indicates that 'awareness' campaigns on health and lifestyle hazards may also be contributing to the increase in riskfactorphobia among both parents and children. Although each individual campaign may be launched with the best of intentions, the cumulative effect creates a pervasive climate of fear and anxiety in which unfounded scares such as the MMR story can trigger widespread panic, with potentially disastrous consequences for public health.
Code of Practice
"There is an urgent need for the health charities and other agencies involved in such campaigns to re-think their approach," said Fox. "They need to take account of the fact that parents are bombarded with warnings and scary headlines on a daily basis, and ask themselves whether yet another anxiety-making campaign is really necessary. Even more importantly, both scientists and the media must take a more socially responsible approach to reporting health issues, to ensure that public health is not further endangered by unfounded scares."
The Social Issues Research Centre is now working with the Royal Institution to facilitate discussion of these issues among leading scientists and media representatives, with a view to developing an agreed, official Code of Practice on the reporting of science and health issues.