Unhealthy N Ireland

Unhealthy Northern Ireland

I have just watched an RTÉ television programme on which someone I vaguely know was hauled through their diet and lifestyle. The initial grab of the programme is that it will tell you how long this pour soul has to live. Knowing the individual concerned I was, of course, a bit curious. The doctor’s computer told her that she’d live to 73, which was longer than she thought herself, and longer than you might give her looking at her. As a result the wind was taken out of dramatic race to save her life with bowls of Alpen and dried fruit. So when the ad breaks came on I flicked over to the Champions League. The ad breaks, without coincidence, preach the virtues of drinks that reduce cholesterol and margarines which will do the same. Back in diet zone, the poor woman was also given a ‘make-over’, which helped pass the time. A new hair-do and a fashion re-imaging were rolled into one on the cheap, since the hairdresser was also the fashion advisor. The result was that she’d live for ten years more if she kept up the muesli and stayed off the chips.

We all know that Northern Ireland is an unhealthy place. The Ulster Fry. It had to be written, because it is the symbol of Northern Irish decadence, and waits in the subcultural wings to be reclaimed as an anti-fatist, anti-consumerist icon. Under the banner of the Ulster Fry we will eventually commit dietary hara-kiri as a radical performance of our disdain for capitalism. Which will cost the health services even more money.  That’ll teach them.

Actually Northern Ireland isn’t quite as unhealthy as it used to be, at least in comparison with other parts of the UK. Just as Portugal and Greece once raced each other for the bottom spot on the EU tables of prosperity, so Belfast and Glasgow once vied for the pride of having the population that smoked most, drank most, and died earliest in the UK. Now we’re catching up. Or people in England, Wales, and Scotland are getting fatter and lazier more quickly than the population of Northern Ireland, and so it looks comparatively as if Northern Irish people are getting healthier. I think it may be the latter. In 2005 38.9% of Northern Irish men and 44.9% surveyed thought they might just be a little overweight.  Which, if it were true, would be shocking . What’s really shocking is that 59% of the adult population of Northern Ireland is ‘actually’ either overweight or obese. This means that there’s a fair few people out there gently patting their bellies and saying, no, I think I’m in great shape. Or maybe the Ulster Fry movement is happening underground and no one has told me. If it has they have started recruiting young, the way these secret organisations do. 36% of children in Northern Ireland are either overweight or obese. Ógra Ulster Fry is, ironically, in good health.

Somewhere in the midst of these figures there are about 20% of the population living with a false consciousness of their own trimness. The figures also show that 26% of the population are regular smokers, 23% are classable as ‘sedentary’ and 26% have an allergy. It’s more than conceivable that  this 20-odd% is a kind of club too; the smoking sedentary who are plagued with allergies.

Our teeth wouldn’t be the best either, though Scotland outdoes us here. Only 33% of Northern Irish adults have 18 or more fully functioning teeth (28% in Scotland and 41% in England). 12% of us have no teeth at all (18% in Scotland). Though the statistics don’t account for the variety of ways in which teeth can be damaged, extracted and lost, so perhaps some other hidden statistical factor (such as ‘What are you lookin at?’) might be involved. If there is, then it’s having an awful effect on kids in Derry and those parts because five year olds in the Western Health and Social Services Board area have the worst teeth in Northern Ireland. But some of you will be consoled, in one way or another by the knowledge that sexually our health isn’t too bad. Incidentally, I came across a statistic which purported to have found that Protestants were almost twice as likely as Catholics to have had sex by the age of 16. So that’s actually true.

Finally, a strange phenomenon, which should be investigated. Remember mumps? An odd word and an uncomfortable childhood illness, but a kind of rite of passage when you’re young. The Annual Abstract of Statistics for 2001 shows that reported cases for mumps from 1995 to 2000 were steady at something around 100 cases per million of the population, and this was roughly the same for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Then in 2000 England, Wales and Scotland mumped in the usual way but in Northern Ireland there was a sudden surge to almost 600 cases per million of the population. Six times more cases than usual and only in Northern Ireland. I don’t remember any reports about this. What happened? An epidemic? Was it a schoolkids’ equivalent of blue flu – a week in which they all decided to mitch off together? Is it linked to the fact that their teeth are either falling out or being filled in at a greater rate than in England? Do we know if it was concentrated in the Western Health and Social Services Board Area? Northern Ireland might be as unhealthy as it is possible to be while living in contemporary Western Europe, but the mumps terror of 2000 suggests more sinister powers at work.

[The Vacuum, April 2007]

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