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Return of the killer mosquitoes


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Friday, 5 August 2016

Return of the killer mosquitoes

Exactly two years ago, we passed on public health advice urging people to cover their water butts and practice good garden husbandry to protect themselves and their loved ones from the 34 species of mosquito that flourish in the brief British summer.

Indigenous mosquitoes inflict nothing more harmful than mild irritation but, as the Public Health England press release made clear, this is mainly thanks to the vigilance of their officials who monitor ports and other entry points to the UK to keep us safe.

Last year there was a lull, a temporary respite, the calm before the storm, perhaps, but now the mosquitoes are back. Only this time it’s serious. 

The BBC reported five cases of the Zika virus in Scotland, immediately raising hopes that while all other areas of news were becalmed in the silly season, there would at least be some decent health stories to report.

There was a pleasing schadenfreude in the thought that Rory McIlroy and his golfing chums, having swerved the negligible risk of contracting Zika by deciding not to travel to Brazil for the Olympics, might catch it instead at St Andrews.

Fear not, golf fans. Mr McIlroy is safe. The BBC story is a classic response to the hysteria that sweeps the media at this time of year when there is nothing to write about. Its source is a routine public health bulletin on the number of recorded cases of Zika virus imported by travellers, of which there are currently around 60 in the UK.

The BBC managed to squeeze every last drop of drama and suspense out of the situation.

Its headline: “Zika outbreak: ‘Small number’ of cases found in Scotland” manages to imply an outbreak in Scotland without saying as much, and also casts doubt on the scale of the problem with judiciously placed quote marks.

Here are the opening paragraphs, a masterclass in the art of the summer non-story. The italics are ours.

“A number of people in Scotland have been diagnosed as having the Zika virus, it has been confirmed.”

They’ve got the virus. We’re all going to die. Adding “it has been confirmed” removes any doubt and suggests that the admission had to be wrung from cagey officials at the Ministry of Tropical Diseases. Much better than saying “we got it from a press release”.

“The Scottish government said the disease, which has sparked a major health alert in South America, did "not pose a public health risk" in Scotland.”

They would say that, wouldn’t they? A government denial means we’re definitely going to die.

“A spokesman said the mosquito that spreads the virus was not found in the UK and Scotland's climate meant it could not become established.”

The author is compelled to present these facts, which risk squashing the story like a bug in the third paragraph. How are we going to keep it going for another 400 words?

“Zika has been linked to microcephaly in babies. The birth defect results in children being born with abnormally small heads and brain damage.”

Ah, that’s how. The gruesome medical detail is irrelevant because there is no risk of contracting the disease in Scotland, but at the midway point in the article there is little to be gained by making this clear.

“It is understood that no more than five Scottish cases have been detected.”

As far as we know there are five cases, but actually there may be 5000 desperately sick golfers with abnormally small heads being treated at a top-secret underground research facility beneath St Andrews.

“More than 50 people across the UK have been treated for the infection.”

It’s spreading. I told you we were doomed.

Anyone who makes it to the end of the story past the numerous “Zika outbreak” links, the map of the world showing infected areas in purple, and the black and white photo of mosquitoes hell-bent on the destruction of Britain’s Ryder Cup hopes would probably work out that there is nothing to fear.

Nevertheless, if you are planning to travel to Scotland this summer, check with the BBC and the Scottish Public Health Observatory first. The crisis may well have deepened.

Meanwhile, if there is any remaining doubt that the silly season is under way, these were among the best health news headlines we found this week. We hope they will help to keep you safe until September, when things should return to normal. Try not to worry until then.

  • Binge watching TV programmes could kill you
  • Overdue mother gives birth to twins after playing Pokémon Go
  • Boy who ate only sausages and beans cured by hypnotherapy
  • Why a summer cold could be WORSE than a winter one
  • Tooth flossing advice being reviewed by Public Health England

Public health editor: NHS Networks