I am writing this on Wednesday, 5 August, 1998. The headline which occupies approximately one third of the surface area of the front page of today's Daily Mail reads: 'ECSTASY KILLS TEENAGE FITNESS TEACHER'. The story is that an 18-year-old girl from Perth in Scotland spent two days in a coma and then died after taking two tablets of the drug Ecstasy during a night out with friends. The whole of page 5 is devoted to further details about the sad case and the dangers of the little white pill.
Under a sub-heading 'Killer that strikes every 18 days', we read: 'Experts believe Ecstasy kills at least 20 Britons a year, most of them under 30. Yet the Home Office keeps no up-to-date record of the toll.'
Contrast this sensationalist treatment with another article that appeared on an obscure inside page of the same newspaper on 3 August. Headed 'Marching on, superbug that knows no fear' and written in sober language by a competent Medical Reporter, this article draws attention to outbreaks of infection in hospitals caused by 'superbugs' which have become resistant to antibiotics and 'are estimated to be killing hundreds of patients every year, and undermining the entire basis of modern medicine which is heavily dependent on antibiotics'.
These micro-organisms can enter patients during operations or through drips or catheters. They can lead to various types of infection, including blood poisoning. They spread easily. And their rapid mutation is attributed to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics which members of the medical profession have been 'handing out like Smarties'.
Dr Barry Cookson, head of infection control at the Public Health Laboratory Service, is reported as claiming that 'hospital-acquired infections, including MRSA and other superbugs, caused about 5,000 deaths a year, 1,000 more than road accidents. That means if someone becomes infected with it when they come into hospital, doctors will be powerless to help them. It's a terrifying prospect.'
Now I ask you, the intelligent and practical reader, is it really more dangerous to your continued well-being to swallow an Ecstasy tablet of your own free will than to enter a hospital for an operation on the advice of your doctor?
Would it not perhaps be more responsible for the Daily Mail to highlight the perils of superbug infection than to encourage governments to further restrict personal freedom by extending the range of arbitrarily banned substances?
Consider the benefits of a prudent fear of superbug infection. Such a fear would immediately restrain the demand for non-emergency surgery and thus at a stroke reduce the length of hospital waiting lists. It would put some sort of tourniquet on the flow of funds into ever-more-expensive high-tech hospital treatments and pharmaceutical products whose much-lauded benefits can so easily be sabotaged by some of the lowest known forms of life. A sense of proportion would do everybody a favour.