Lady Bracknell would have known exactly what to say. “To lose one case, Mr McCracken, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.”
E.coli O157 – the bacterium that causes outbreaks of bloody diarrhoea and occasionally kidney failure, especially in children – is back in the news. Four so-called petting farms have been closed as the number of cases from the worst affected farm rose to 67 today.
Governments routinely monitor for such outbreaks. In the UK, the national body charged with maintaining communicable disease surveillance for a number of infections, including gut infections, is the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
Unfortunately, the HPA was caught napping. Identifying outbreaks means identifying a rise above the normal number of cases for a given time and place. The HPA “lost” two early cases, and as a result there was a delay in identifying the outbreak, and subsequent closure of the affected farm.
Because of the delay, children got ill who would otherwise not have done so. Some of those children became very ill and needed hospitalisation. The parents are rightfully angry.
The Chief Pongo of the HPA, Mr Justin McCracken, personally telephoned some of the parents of the worst affected children to apologise. Such an apology is to be commended, but it does not alter the facts of the case. More bad medicine has occurred.
Mr McCrackle (sic) also announced that there is to be an independent investigation into the outbreak. Only it wont be very independent: the investigation will be led by a Professor George Griffin who, amongst other things, heads up the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) – which is itself part of the HPA. A bit like the Met investigating the Met – only these days even the Met has realised that sort of thing doesn’t wash.
None of this has been enough to stop veteran microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington – who increasing bears more than a passing resemblance to a shagged out Aberdeeen Angus bull – weighing in with advice that children under five should not touch animals at petting farms at all.
Whatever your views on petting farms (probably tacky, but necessary in an age where “concrete children” think cabbages come from Asda and lemons from Birmingham, and that cows lay eggs), such an admonition is yet another example of the nanny state running on full throttle.
Just as Sir Liar Liar Pants on Fire Donaldsong would have under 15 year olds never touch alcohol, Professor Pennington’s advice strays into areas that are for parents, not the state, to decide. Alcohol does pose medical risks, as does contact with farm animals, but the risks are part of every day life, and it is for parents to help their children to learn how to manage those risks, not the state to issue diktats.