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  • Writer's pictureJason Nisse

Dukes of risk - or hazard

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Crossing the road the other day I was stopped by the mother of one of my son’s schoolfriends. Our socially distanced chat soon turned to the issue of the vaccines against the virus. “Will you be inoculated,” she asked. “Too right,” I answered. “Yeah, I think I will too,” she said. “But I’m worried about the risks.”

Then wasn’t the time to get into a deep discussion, but I wondered if she, like many people, and much of the media, confused risk and hazard.

Risk of course is in everything we do. Sitting at my desk there is a risk – miniscule, mind you – that my house will collapse around my ears and I’ll be crushed. Do I take precautions? No, because the risk isn’t large enough to be a hazard to my wellbeing.

Crossing the road, though, has a far higher risk. So I take precautions – waiting for the Pelican crossing to turn green, looking right and left, putting my phone away, not wearing headphones that would block out the sound of traffic. This cuts down the chance that I’ll be run over.

Take something really risky – like Formula 1 Motor Racing. The French driver Roman Grosjean survived one of the worst crashes of recent history last Sunday because of a recent safety adjustment, a so called “halo” around the driver cockpit. There hasn’t been a F1 fatality in the last six years of racing – it the early 1970s it was estimated that drivers had a one in four chance of being killed. The risk is still very high, but safety measures have reduced the hazard,

A whole industry has grown up that specialised in communicating risk, particular in areas like pharmaceuticals and energy, which is predicated on the idea that if you properly communicate risk, people can make informed decisions, take precautions, and so reduce the potential hazard. And I’m proud to say one of the world experts, Professor Ragnar Lofstedt of King’s College, London, is a good friend, and later this month I’ll be talking to his students about how the media reports risk.

In short the media’s approach to risk is poorly informed, based on the old adage of “bad news sells”, it ramps up often minor concerns to get people to read papers or click on articles. In the age of clickbait (and fast journalism written by inexperienced reporters) this has only got worse.

So has the media reporting of Covid-19 vaccines fed the anti-vaxxer movement? The clumsy communication around the AstraZeneca Oxford University vaccine hasn’t helped – is it 90% or 60% effective? As most vaccines are considered good if they are over 50% effective then we should take a more considered view, but AstraZeneca’s breathless promoting of the vaccine (echoing the hyperbole emitted by Pfizer about its treatment) didn’t help. The pharma companies though were only feeding the media beast which treats medicines as either wonder drugs or killers, with little in between.

When there was the big controversy about the MMR vaccine, based on a false study that it caused autism, I asked my sister-in-law, a GP, whether we should get our kids vaccinated. “If they get measles it will be far, far worse for them,” she replied.

We were at the front of the queue at the surgery. And we will be again when the Covid-19 vaccines are approved. We understand there’s a risk, but the hazard of not being inoculated is greater.

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