Written by Sadia Akbar
Whether or not you’ve had your fair share of chemical-related scares, you’re likely aware that there is a number you can call to get immediate help with such incidents. Poison centres are specialized resource units for emergency advice on poisoning incidents and provide easily accessible information on prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment.
The first poison centre was established in the Netherlands shortly after World War II, due to the increase of new chemical products and related increase of poisoning cases that this period brought about. In the era of the world wide web, poison centres may seem outdated to some with the assumption that you can find the information on the chemical you need with a Google search. However, information on the internet is not always correct. Poisoning incidents are often highly time-sensitive and the luxury of scrolling to find a reliable and accurate source may not be present. Hence, a resource connecting people immediately to experts is critical in these cases.
Recent events have further highlighted the pressing importance of poison centres. In early 2020, the spread of COVID-19 brought about increased cleaning and disinfecting efforts by the public and the associated risk of increased exposure to poisonous chemicals. The inappropriate mixing of cleaning products was also a pressing health concern. As a result, the Canadian Surveillance System for Poison Information (CSSPI) saw a tremendous increase of calls related to cleaning products and disinfectants, as high as a 400% increase for some products compared to the year before.
Poison centres also have roles extending beyond serving as a readily available information unit. They work to enhance preventative methods by characterizing the epidemiology of poisoning, advise on managing the health impacts following a chemical incident, and monitor chemical exposures to identify potential large-scale chemical releases in a given area. Further demonstrating the vitality of poison centres, the Ramathibodi Poison Center in Bangkok serves as an all-in-one facility for poisoning incidents from answering enquiries about potential poisoning to providing medical treatment for such poisonings. For example, in 2016, a 7-year-old boy named Krittithee, was accidentally shot in the leg with a lead bullet causing high levels of lead to be found in his blood. He was quickly referred to Ramathibodi and his timely access to information and treatment were essential to his survival and recovery. He was treated at the centre for several years and his case required specialized antidotes which prompt clinical diagnosis and laboratory analysis allowed him to receive in time. Krittithee is now able to walk, attend school, and continue leading a normal, healthy life.
Despite being such a crucial resource, poison centres are still not available to all. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 47% of Member States have a poison centre, and the areas most lacking are the African, Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Pacific regions. The WHO estimates that unintentional poisoning caused 106 683 deaths in 2016, translating to the loss of 6.3 million years of healthy life. Further, the last few decades have seen minimal progress in establishing more poison centres in areas that need them despite the vital service they provide and consequent thousands of lives that could be saved.
Poisoning cases are responsible for many preventative illnesses and deaths, and poison centres are the simple key to preventing them.
Photo by Davide Baraldi from Pexels
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