Is there a role for law(yers) in public health?

ITS not often that speakers forgo the chance to present in favour of opening up debate, but this is exactly what happened here at the World Congress Public Health 2012 (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,Tuesday April 24), in the session “Law: a public health tool”. Moderator, Michele Forzley, chose not to talk on access to medicines in favor of a longer group discussion, following presentations from 3 African speakers on law related to women’s rights, public health emergencies, and setting up NGOs.

Split into small groups,  we, the audience, were asked to identify public health issues which persisted despite knowing the cause and cure, and despite the existence of laws providing protection. The speaker panel then commented on the identified issues, relating them to existing law in their various countries and suggesting why the law had failed to protect.. Michelle Forzley supplied the international perspective. 

Issues identified by the groups related to LMICs (low and middle income countries) and included khat use by young people in Ethiopia; environmental pollution from mining; migrant rights; counterfeit drugs, poor quality breast milk substitutes; training needs of public health workers to enable them to defend and advocate effectively for public health law enforcement; and food labelling/quality, particularly of imported foods.

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Biofuels: a public health hazard?

Jatropha curcas

Jatropha curcas, image courtesy of Biofuels Information Exchange

It has come to my attention that Jatropha curcas (physic nut or purging nut) is being pushed in India as a biofuel crop (for oil) and that there is now an emerging public health problem there due to accidental poisoning of children.

An Indian member of the listserv HIFA2015 to which I belong, Pankaj Oudhia, reported increased hospitalisations of children across the nation during the Jatropha fruiting season in 2010. The seeds are tasty but it only takes 3 or 4 seeds and you end up in hospital.  Five children died. Cultivated in fields as the biofuel crop, he also reported it was deliberately planted in schools. 

Here at CABI, our scientists, projects and information specialists have much to offer on the topic of biofuels and in 2008 we launched the Biofuels Information Exchange. So I went straight there to see if they had discussed Jatropha in their Forum, which they had (see “Is jatropha really the 'miracle' biofuel crop that some profess it to be?” from Carole Ellison).

AS a biofuel crop its in its infancy and has many downsides, not least on food security & the fact that you can’t use the husks for feed.  One of the reasons it was even considered was that as a weed (originating in South America) it was thought likely to be easy & cheap to cultivate. Turns out to make it productive you do have to go heavy on the fertiliser (expensive) and it also can harbour a mosaic virus. Only in passing was it pointed out that the seeds were poisonous and then only with reference to its use for animal feed.

One of the issues raised in this HIFA2015 communication was the lack of knowledge in the local communities about the poisonous nature of the seeds, so that parents could not forewarn their children.  And obviously the authorities had no idea otherwise they’d not have planted them in schools!

Definitely a lack of communication between botanists, agriculturalists, governments and medics when it comes to people’s health.

Let’s not get complacent here in Europe. WE all need reminding which plants are poisonous or irritating in gardens and in the hedgerows. Then we should tell children not to eat or touch them. Just because a bird is eating a juicy red berry does not make it edible for humans or even your pet dog.

Knowing a traditional name helps even us….deadly nightshade is a dead give-away isn’t it?

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