Thursday, February 12, 2009

Do Australian soap operas cause multiple sclerosis?

Sunday's Observer had an article suggesting that health campaigns to encourage people to avoid the sun , lest they get skin cancer, may be doing more harm than good.

Because exposure to sunlight produces vitamin D in the body, and deficiency in that vitamin has been linked with the development of diseases like diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer and tuberculosis. The newspaper also cited new research suggesting that a lack of vitamin D can play a part in the development of multiple sclerosis.

More than that, said the Observer:
In 2007, the Department of Health revealed that up to one in 100 children born to families from ethnic minorities now suffer from rickets, a condition triggered by lack of vitamin D in which children develop a pronounced bow-legged gait. The disease once blighted lives in Victorian Britain but was eradicated by improved diets. Now it is making a major resurgence, a problem that has been further exacerbated in ethnic communities by women wearing hijabs that cover all of their bodies and block out virtually every beam of vitamin-stimulating sunshine.
The newspaper went to to say:
A major health campaign, offering dietary advice and vitamin D supplements has since been launched. But for many doctors, it is not enough. The nation's health service needs to re-evaluate completely its approach to vitamin D as a matter of urgency; establish new guidelines for taking supplements; and scrap most of the limits on sunbathing currently proposed by health bodies.
I have always been puzzled at the speed with which concern about the sun and skin cancer swept enveloped Britain and was taken up by the Guardian-reading classes in particular. For most of the 20th century, the liberation of people - children in particular - from restrictive clothing and their exposure to the sun was seen as a thoroughly progressive cause. Just look at any propaganda for the National Health Service and the welfare state from the immediate post-War period.

Why did things change so quickly in the 1990s?

It is not as if skin cancer poses such an overwhelming threat that it can wholly explain the change. Back in 2005 Sam Shuster, Emeritus Professor of Dermatology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, wrote on Spiked:

To find an explanation for the rise of concern about exposure to the sun, we have to look elsewhere. That rise took place in that odd period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Rather than congratulate themselves in living in a happy age, people looked for something else to worry about - hence the emergence of strange scares like the satanic ritual abuse of children and the millennium bug. Maybe skin cancer was another one of those.

And we cannot ignore the rise of environmental concern - and in particular concern about man-made global warming - in the period. There was a widespread feeling that there was something wrong with the climate, and you heard people say that they "never used to burn like this". Hence people began to worry about exposure to the sun.

But maybe there is a clue in Professor Shuster's article. He writes:
The high incidence of skin cancer in Australia is the product of a high UV exposure in a population whose ancestors included many with pale, freckled skin and red hair. It should not be extrapolated to different populations living in sun-deprived climates.
And, of course, things Australian were all the rage in the Britain of the 1990s. Their cricket team was sweeping all before them. Australian bars were opening everywhere. And Neighbours and Home & Away were on our televisions.

If you doubt this, remember the rise of uptalk. This was the habit of raising their voices at the end of a sentence that many younger people acquired in the 1990s? It had the effect of turning every statement into a question?

One theory is that this habit entered Britain's youth via Australian soap opera. If that did happen, then there is no reason why an exaggerated concern about exposure to the sun should not have come along the same route. Certainly, this BBC Cornwall webpage makes use of the language of the Australian Slip-Sl0p-Slap campaign.

So maybe we should blame Kylie and Jason for some of our health problems?


Frank Little said...

It should not be extrapolated to different populations living in sun-deprived climates.
But it could be extended to those people who revelled in a week or a fortnight's exposure to unaccustomed sun on package holidays, which also boomed at the end of last century.

Pete said...

I think you're on the right lines with environmental issues, but my guess is that it was all the publicity around the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. This happened in the mid 80s and was hitting the headlines late 80s. Skin cancer was specifically mentioned as a consequence. And it was a British hole dammit. See here

Duncan Brack said...

I very rarely comment on blogs - life's too short - but I was so taken aback by the idea that the rise of concern about skin cancer in the early 1990s was due to nothing more than a neurotic need to have something to worry about post-1989 that I thought I ought to. And the fact that Sam Shuster, who presumably thinks of himself as a reputable academic, could have written an entire article about the issue without once mentioning the impact of ozone depletion is staggering.

The reality is that the link between consumption of various industrial chemicals, such as CFCs, and the destruction of the ozone layer, suspected from the late 1970s, was finally proven in the mid/late 1980s, leading to the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol, probably now the most successful international environmental agreement. Ozone depletion leads to an increase in UV irradiation, which leads, among many other things, to an increase in the incidence of various kinds of skin cancer. This is not a made-up scare, or 'just something else to worry about' - it is an observable and measurable fact. Why does Jonathan have to assume that there is nothing real behind it?

And while we're on the subject, ozone depletion is not the same as climate change; it happens everywhere outside the tropics, all the year round, not just in the Antarctic (ozone levels over the UK in the spring have fallen by as much as 50%); but it is, thanks to the Montreal Protocol, thought to be at its worst round about now, and should soon start to recover. Just as well the Protocol's negotiators didn't think this was just a problem that only affected Australian soap opera stars ...

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