Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Dirty needles and children

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A bit of common sense

By Gina Barker

What is one of the greatest killers in the world? What spreads disease all across third world countries?

It’s the same product we use every day to prevent and treat disease here in the United States.

The killer is the hypodermic needle. And it is sad that a product of convenience and luxury in one nation means the spread of disease in another. In developing nations and the third world, normal clinical practices include reusing the hypodermic needle so that hundreds of patients might use the same needle over and over again.

Each year 1.3 million people are infected and die from dirty needles. This number now surpasses the total number of malaria deaths in a year. In India alone, two-thirds of injections are using unsafe needles.

Parents in these nations are at risk just for taking their new baby to the local hospital for normal vaccinations. Baby’s first tetanus shot could infect them with hepatitis or HIV. Parents don’t know where that needle came from and didn’t see anyone unwrap it. It’s a safe bet that needle has been in contact with hundreds of patients all day.

Even before that, there is an entire market for digging through the garbage, finding discarded needles, giving them a quick rinse and repackaging them to sell to hospitals. Children in Pakistan can make several cents a day just picking through garbage looking for used syringes, where they are often stabbed hundreds of times just in the process of looking for these needles. That needle dug up in the trash could be the same needle vaccinating a child. Did it carry HIV? It’s a thought most parents don’t even consider because of an over-trust in doctors using western medicine.

A substantial number of “dirty needle deaths” are children. According to SafePoint, a nonprofit organization working to prevent unsafe injections and educate on proper medical care, every 24 seconds a child dies as a result of an unsafe injection. And each of these deaths is easily prevented. In one fell swoop, spreading disease with the reuse of dirty needles could stop completely. Marc Koska is the inventor of the K1 single-shot syringe. The way the syringe works is that once the initial shot is given and the plunger is pushed all the way to the bottom, pulling the syringe back to reload will break the plunger, making it impossible, or at least extremely frustrating, to use a second time. Best part of all this, the syringe uses all the same parts already in use in syringe production and costs just 5 cents.

Avert.org, another nonprofit organization focused on preventing AIDS in Europe, claims Eastern Europe has the world’s fastest growth rate of HIV/AIDS infections, and this is largely due to dirty needles.

In a New York Times article dating from 1990, orphanages in Romania experienced a boom of HIV/AIDS orphans, most presumed infected by sharing needles. This story took years to unfold as the pattern became recognized. AIDS infections created an invisible border between Eastern and Western Europe, the former Soviet and the rest, and this border still exists.

The technology that was meant to save people resulted in the infection and death of millions.

The single-shot syringe is now standardized in several nations. Using any other kind of needle is illegal in some cases, but this is a battle far from seeing the end. Making sure safe injection practices are used in a nation where no standard one-shot system exists means convincing local clinics and hospitals to willingly choose the slightly more expensive syringe.

We’re talking pocket change in America to prevent the deaths of millions around the world. It’s an interesting thought next time you have blood drawn for a test or get the seasonal flu shot that you lucked out. That’s a clean needle in your arm, a fact a majority of the world can’t match.

First published on Weber State University's "The Signpost", 25 Nov 09
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