A woman in China sews protective suits for those handling ebola patients. Photo: Getty
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Status update: the World Service’s reports on ebola

Having listened to the show for three weeks, I am repeatedly struck by its unusually fluctuating tone.

News About Ebola
BBC World Service

At the time of writing, the information and analysis bulletin News About Ebola (weekdays, 7.50pm) had been picked up by 53 local radio partners of the BBC World Service across West Africa – from Sierra Leone’s Radio Democracy in Freetown to Liberia’s Radio Cape Mount and Guinea’s Radio Nostalgie. Known to be a source of reliable information, the show receives up to 3,500 texts a day.

In an email, one of the presenters, Amara Bangura, tells me that the questions from the public cover everything imaginable, not least ebola’s rumoured resistance to a particular brand of rum. Having listened to the show for three weeks, I am repeatedly struck by its unusually fluctuating tone. Using an interview with a World Health Organisation official, a local politician or a person on the street, one programme might be quite formal, almost distant, where others seem to contain the delirium of wounded national identity. Most memorable was a customer at a Freetown market considering the crates of rotten eggs and mould-covered cassava leaves in front of her and saying that opportunists had priced even these too high to buy. And one sharply edited feature at the end of the first week of this month was striking: a UK medic confirmed that up to 600 NHS workers have admirably volunteered their services.

Then to a nurse on the ground in 30°C heat and 100 per cent humidity, describing her protective clothing: “One pair of boots, one waterproof overall, two pairs of gloves taped at the wrists, a waterproof protective hood, goggles, face mask and then a plastic apron over all of it.”

Recent reports that many health workers are prepared to strike unless provided with even more protective barriers couldn’t fail to fill the listener with awe. “Often the fingers in my gloves are full of liquid,” the nurse had concluded, her voice exquisitely neutral. Then she shrugged one simple word: “Sweat.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.