Health: False alarms, incomplete information

There has never been, nor is there now any risk from asbestos in government buildings, or in EDC houses for those who live there

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

‘Despite this (medical evidence), however, down the years at the approach of the annual Budget, and also during the year from time to time for reasons best known to themselves, some people have kept raising the asbestos spectre in the media…’

This is what I wrote in an article titled ‘Social Housing: FAKE NEWS about asbestos’ in the June 15, 2018 issue of this paper, and I was therefore not surprised to see the spectre of asbestos headlined in a morning paper a couple of days ago, as we are approaching budget time. Given this false alarm, accompanied as usual with pictures of EDC houses with their inhabitants standing in front of them, it is appropriate to reproduce a few extracts from that article which have all their relevance, and are meant for the population at large and in particular policy makers.

‘Let this be made clear at the very outset: there has never been, nor is there now any risk from asbestos in government buildings, or in EDC houses for those who live there’.

‘Clinical medical evidence, that is, that gained by doctors on examination of patients, and medical statistics, including about cancer, have never shown up any case of lung disease attributable to asbestos’.

‘So I would urge policy-makers not to react in panic to any lay reports of apparently asbestos-related diseases in Mauritius, and instead to go by the conclusive evidence and the recommendations made by the proper experts in the field, who are the Occupational Medicine physicians of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life’.

‘…there were vested interests that were raking up the issue, in defiance and in ignorance of valid medical evidence which was officially available in the country’.

‘The basic fact is that it is only by working with asbestos products that one is exposed to the risk of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibres. These are to be found in specific occupations, and not in houses or buildings with asbestos walls – as is the case with those working in government buildings or EDC houses because they are not working with asbestos products’.

‘Definitely we must address the issue of social housing, but not as a knee-jerk reaction to an imaginary asbestos problem about EDC houses. Rather, this should be in a planned fashion, and from the asbestos perspective there certainly is no case to prioritise EDC houses – for there is no emergency -, but to look at all socio-economic parameters instead of the purely political vote-catching angle’.

I write en connaissance de cause because I was right in the centre of the issue as it were, around 2011/12 when a politician raised the (false) alarm. I was then at the Ministry of Health and to allay this publicly generated hysteria, we deployed our epidemiologist (who had recently retired from his post at the WHO) to carry out a survey along with the colleagues from the Occupational Medicine Department. It was done according to a rigorous methodology in several areas such as Black River, Batimarais, etc., i.e. localities with EDC houses. And again, NO CASE of asbestos-related disease was found.

What is more, I recall a press conference held jointly some time by the Ministers of Social Security and of Health, Mr Etienne Sinatambou and Dr Husnoo, when the latter specifically declared that there was no case of asbestos-related disease recorded in Mauritius.

So, for heaven’s sake, this ghost must not be resurrected again and again as the facts do not support its existence.

Incomplete information

Health is everybody’s concern, and it does not surprise that there is an information overload about all aspects of health and medicine that is just a click away. If even doctors get confused sometimes with all that is on offer, one can imagine the plight of the lay person who looks up all this without any idea of how to assess the correctness of the info provided, let alone what to do about the sometimes contradictory advice given by different websites. Or by the same site a few months down the line, when another team or another study has shown different results.

And this is not a matter of being educated or not, sometimes the more educated get into a tizzy about some item. Coffee causes cancer of this and that; coffee is good for this and that. Tomatoes have been shown to be beneficial in reducing the incidence of cancer. Garlic and onions are good for a variety of ailments, both as prevention and cure. Turmeric is the latest panacea for many disease conditions – and it goes on and on.

So what is one to do? Gulp down litres of coffee daily, or proscribe this favourite for ever and be miserable? Eat tomatoes, garlic and onions by the ton? Lace everything one eats with turmeric?

The other day somebody who accompanied a patient told me that they had used some medicine grand-mère to relieve him, and asked me if I believed in that. Not only I do, I said, but I have even advised patients to use them where I thought they would be more efficient than our modern medicines. For example, hing in hot water applied to the navel is great in relieving colic in babies – ask any grandma coming from the Indian tradition, and I write from experience like many others too! And I am sure that there such equivalents in other cultures as well.

We just have to remember that modern medicine has been around for only about 200 years, and whole civilizations have lived and thrived without it for thousands of years, using empirical formulations and techniques which must have served them well for humanity to be soon touching the 9 billion mark!

Mind you, I am not saying that we should reject modern remedies and start practising voodoo, but we must use a combination of common sense, correct modern medical and health information, and recourse to qualified and experienced health professionals to address our health concerns. It is good to remember that there is a difference between treating disease – which is what most doctors do – and promoting good health and well-being, which depends on a large variety of factors but which also calls for assuming individual responsibility in the way we live, ranging from what we eat and drink to any bad habits we may have as well as the company we keep. All of these are nowadays grouped under the concept of ‘lifestyle’.

All these food items and substances that are either recommended or prohibited produce their effect according to the amounts or doses of the active ingredients which they contain. And anything in excess is bound to cause some problem, whether we know which one or not – since the unknown is far vaster than the known. So the best advice as regards all these goodies which are reported is: take everything in moderation. Means if tomates are recommended for x, y and zee, it does not mean that one should stop everything and just stuff up with them henceforth. One would get fed up anyway – the natural signal the body would send by way of saying ‘stop being stupid!’

Commonsense, reasonableness and judicious attention to folk wisdom as well as proper professional advice will ensure we live beyond the proverbial three-score and ten. It’s all up to us…

* Published in print edition on 8 March 2019

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