The attack of the killer cucumbers (or not)

When everyone actually <em>is</em> going to die, no one will believe the tabloids.

Bloody foreign bacteria, coming over here, infecting us. Yes, the latest panic-porn scare story being fed to us is the tale of what the Daily Express refers to, with typically unhyperbolic restraint, as KILLER FOOD BUG.

The new strain of e.coli, initially thought to be hidden in Spanish cucumbers, caused a bit of a problem for our beloved papers. It's hard to panic about something that's happening in another country, a few rogue cucumbers killing off some Germans. Where's the jeopardy in that? But now things are serious. Now the big red button has been well and truly pushed. Because it's coming over here.

MUTANT E.COLI IS IN BRITAIN, shrieked the Daily Mail this morning, with all the calmness of the housekeeper in the Tom & Jerry cartoons standing on a stool. This is the story, whether we like it or not, whether it's scary or not: the deadly bug is coming here, to infect us and kill us. 7 BRITS HIT BY 'KILLER' CUCUMBERS, roared the Daily Star, ignoring the evidence that the new strain of bacteria is not believed to have come from cucumbers after all, but pointing out that now British people have been infected instead of Germans, it's time to get serious.

It's not unlike other stories and narratives our popular papers like to peddle - foreign invaders, crossing the border at will, causing widespread destruction. Sometimes it's immigrants; sometimes it's scary invading critters like ladybirds or jellyfish or squirrels; today it's bacteria.

This year's Icelandic ash cloud proved disappointingly unapocalyptic, so this scare has come along at the right time, with just enough promise of peril and just enough anxiety about our shores being invaded by foreign nasties to keep us all interested. Perhaps this is the scare that will have legs and become the new BSE; I think that's the hope, anyway. All too often, these things come and go, and disappear off the radar pretty rapidly when they aren't sufficiently terrifying.

You may not remember tabloid panic about campylobacter, back in 2009, for example - but that made the front pages. The Express splashed with it back in October that year and the Mail chipped in too. "Killer chickens on our high streets" has been kicked around every now and then since, entirely coincidentally happening on relatively slow news days when there isn't much else - asylum seekers, the BBC, political correctness having definitely gone mad - to worry about.

Now it could be the case, and I'm not saying it isn't, that there genuinely is something really worth worrying about with the latest scare. But it's hard to tell. We get these panic stories force fed to us, like Robert Morley having his beloved pet poodles stuffed down his throat by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood; and it's difficult, as a punter, to know which are the ones that should cause us genuine concern.

Perhaps it would help if papers could have a code, a "safe word" that would make us realise that this is a properly scary thing, rather than a pretend scary thing - maybe if they wrote the headlines in blood red, that would mean this story really is something to worry about, rather than something to worry a bit about then forget about. "You know all the times we said this or that might kill you or give you cancer, and we were just kind of exaggerating? Well this one is really dangerous, really dangerous, honest", they could say, to put us at ease - or rather not. The irony is, when Godzilla does turn up at Dover, and the tabloids warn us, we'll all think they were pulling our legs.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear