When it comes to health, we never know as much as we think we do. Illustration: George Wylesol
By Alex Halperin
Just because today marijuana is widely regarded as safer than alcohol doesn’t mean that’s the final word. A bestselling anti-marijuana book is making waves for suggesting that the drug may be far more dangerous than the industry would have us believe. But how much credence should we give it?
Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, by the former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, reminds readers that when it comes to health, we never know as much as we think we do.
The most demonstrable health risk associated with marijuana is that for a small portion of users, largely men in their teens and early 20s, the drug may induce psychosis and schizophrenia, sometimes after only short-term use. By highlighting this real, and terrifying, risk of marijuana use, Berenson has done an important public service.
But as others have pointed out, the book overreaches in trying to establish a causal link between cannabis use and violence. And it suffers from Berenson’s refusal to consider marijuana as anything other than a serious threat to a relatively small segment of the population.
Science takes time and is not immune to the dogmas of its era. Today doctors universally recognize the dangers of cigarette smoking, but it took decades – and millions of early, agonizing deaths – before the consensus solidified. The best parts of Tell Your Children document the connection between pot smoking and psychosis, from 19th century Mexico and India to the present day.
The connection hadn’t been a secret. According to a 2013 statement from the American Psychiatric Association, “current evidence supports, at minimum, a strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to harm, given the effects of cannabis on neurological development”. But Berenson has amplified it more effectively than anyone else.
It isn’t a fashionable argument right now. The for-profit cannabis industry promotes the drug as a nearly harmless “medicine” and it seems to be working. Last year, Canada became the first large country to legalize recreational cannabis. About 90% of Americans favor access to medical marijuana and roughly two-thirds favor full legalization.
The rapid shift in US public opinion towards legalization has been fueled by disgust with the war on drugs and mass incarceration, as well as the largely unproven hopes that medical marijuana can mitigate complex health crises such as the opioid epidemic.
According to Berenson, “the great majority” of teenagers who smoke weed will not be affected by psychosis. But young people who are at greatest risk deserve the best available information. By describing numerous psychotic breakdowns in excruciating detail, the book’s scare tactics could save a few lives. Berenson is also not the first person to soundly argue that the high-potency pot products available now are likely to make the problem worse.
The second part of Berenson’s argument, however, has attracted more criticism. He attempts to show that because marijuana can cause psychosis and psychosis can cause violence, marijuana causes users to commit senseless, nightmarish acts of violence. (For rebuttals see here, here, here and here. For a discussion of the issues involved see here.)
Tell Your Children opens with an Australian woman who knifed eight children to death, seven of them hers. Later it tells the story of Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old Arizona man who in 2011 shot six people to death and nearly killed then congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; Loughner also smoked pot. There’s lots more.
Yet legal marijuana markets don’t seem to have witnessed an uptick in ultraviolence. Berenson suggests the crimes are out there but have not been well-publicized, and that the problem is gestating. Maybe, but the argument suffers from a definition of psychosis which seems to encompass everything from low-level paranoia to fits of homicidal rage.
And while Berenson focuses on questionable concerns over violence, he misses a number of less cinematic, but perhaps more dangerous threats. He could have looked, for example, into the little studied question of whether cannabis use by pregnant women can impair fetal brain development.
Every adult in America, meanwhile, knows someone they think smokes too much weed, not because the user mutilated someone, but because it seemed to diminish their emotional or intellectual capacities. By some estimates, 10% of marijuana users develop a dependency on the drug. Under any legalization scenario, it’s this population, the anonymous problem user, who will weigh most heavily on society.
A better anti-weed book would tell their stories. But this would force questions Berenson has no interest in answering. If 20% of marijuana users have a problem, 80% don’t. Berenson doesn’t want to come off as a prig. He gets that people like to get high and tries not to hold it against them. But he’s uninterested in why people get high, much less able to acknowledge the possibility that there’s any good reason for it.
Like a lot of weed opponents, he says only a small fraction of marijuana users use it to treat a clinical medical need. That’s true. Much about weed invites this kind of easy contempt. But the great bulk of users feel it’s beneficial, because it helps them relax, it improves their sex life or makes it more fun to play with their kids. Maybe it helps them drink less alcohol, which they find more destructive.
And at the other end of the spectrum from the problem users is a population who consider weed something like a performance-enhancing drug. They can be found, among other places, throughout the ranks of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The last century of music, one might argue, was brought to us by weed.
The book would have been better if Berenson had some understanding of, or curiosity about, the drug’s allure and complexity, or even could put its dangers in context.
“By some criteria, I am dependent,” the journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2017. “Weed most definitely isn’t for everyone. But compared with all the other substances available, and most other avenues to chill and friendship, it remains, it seems to me, a no-brainer to legalize it, and for many sane adults, one of God’s great gifts to humankind.”
Prickly response: hedgehogs shouldn’t be kissed, says the CDC. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
By Sam Wolfson
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken the unusual measure of advising Americans not to kiss or snuggle their pet hedgehogs.
It comes after a CDC investigation found that 11 people in the United States had contracted a rare strain of salmonella, known as Salmonella typhimurium, since October. It’s emerged that 10 out of the 11 were in close contact with hedgehogs before becoming ill.
The 11 people were in eight different states, including three in Missouri and two in Minnesota. The CDC said it was unclear if the pet hedgehogs came from “a common supplier”.
Officials have warned hedgehog owners not to “kiss or snuggle hedgehogs, because this can spread salmonella germs to your face and mouth and make you sick”. Owners are also advised not to “let hedgehogs roam freely in areas where food is prepared or stored, such as kitchen”.
One person has been hospitalised and no deaths have been reported.
In 2012 there was another major outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium in which most people affected had come into contact with a hedgehog. During that outbreak there were a total of 26 cases and eight people were hospitalised.
Some hedgehogs have become social media stars in the past few years, and their cute photos have racked up thousands of likes. Darcy the hedgehog, named after the former Smashing Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky, has more than 294,000 followers.
The humanisation of celebrity hedgehogs perhaps explains why people feel more compelled to kiss them, but having one as a pet remains illegal in many US states including Georgia, California and Hawaii, as well as Washington DC and New York City. These bans are mostly in place because of fears around disease.
The 12 km road from Thiès to the commune of Cherif Lo (Senegal) is well paved and adorned with little villages on both sides of the road. Quite noticeable as well on approaching Koudiadiène are the grooves and depressions on the asphalt left by the trucks of great tonnage that ply the road daily. The crossroad of he village of Koudidiène is full of large trucks, merchants on the side of the road, women who weave in groups, young people who cross the road from one side to another going and coming to the secondary school and people waiting for the arrival of public transport that takes them to the city of Thiès.
During our visit to Koudiadiène; either to the religious communities, the medical dispensary or private homes of families, we soon discovered a common element: the dust from the mining site of SEPHOS are found on the tables, chairs, shelves, kitchen utensils, windows, books, trees, cars… The Sisters who work in assured us that they clean the dust every day in the morning and that in the evening everything is covered again by a whitish layer of dust from the mines. The glassy eyes of our interlocutors, the continuous clearing of their voices and the irritation of the throat is common for all its inhabitants. Myself, after spending a few hours in the area I begin to feel the throat irritation. “It is the dust of the mine” my guide told me when I requested to go to a pharmacy … This throat sensation would be my lot during the week-long visit in Koudiadiène and immediately it disappeared the same day I left to Dakar.
The representatives of the mining company SEPHOS deny that the dust comes from the mine and rather attributed it to the desert that is more than 100 kilometers away. However, the company fails to explain why other populations in the same region are not invaded by dust.
In the agreement reached between the mining company SEPHOS (of Spanish capital) and the villagers of Koudiadiène, in May 2017, Mr. Nolasco on behalf of the SEPHOS committed to a non-written agreement to a set of commitments with the population of Koudiadiène. This commitment would be based on the obligation of foreign companies to compensate for the damage caused to local populations with part of their profits and not based on a charity grant. Given the alleged toxicity of the dust, such concessions would alleviate the damage caused by the dust from the mine to the people who live in the surrounding areas of the mine.
Among these commitments, there were three specific actions related to the health and welfare of the population. SEPHOS would undertake simple measures that would reduce the emission of dust caused by the extraction of the mineral, such as covering the mineral with tarpaulins during the drying process, installing dust retention screens in the process of screening the mineral, as well as watering and repairing the access road to the mine through which large trucks ply and children walk go to school every day. Mr. Nolasco also committed himself to certain concessions such as donations of medicines to the dispensary of Koudiadiène and letting the use of the ambulance of the mine in case of health emergencies.
The dispensary of Koudiadiène mainly serves the district of Cherif Lo and its doors are open to the people as they come. The dispensary keeps strict records of the cases it encounters. As the graph shows, there has been a progression of cases treated in relation to skin, cough and throat and eye infections in the recent years. This data confirm what we have been able to observe in the village.
Given the claim of the company that the dust that accumulates in the village comes from the desert, AEFJN and REDES decided to take a sample of the dust and analyze it in a laboratory to find out the probable source of the dust. This sample was taken following the precise instructions of a mining engineer who accompanied us on our trip. The dust followed the recommended chain of custody so that its composition was not altered and has been analyzed in the laboratory of a recognized Spanish public university.
Among the first conclusions we have obtained is that the minerals found in the sample are not part of the composition of the sand that is normally found in the desert. On the contrary, the minerals found in the analyzed sample of dust (Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Potassium, Titanium, Chromium or Manganese) are more typical of a mining quarry than of desert sand. Moreover, five of these minerals are found in a high concentration that are considered harmful to health. These are Magnesium, Aluminum, Phosphorus, Potassium and Iron.
If the sample of dust analyzed determines that it is not desert dust; If the dust is found only in the villas that surround the mine; If the dust analysis confirm the harmful concentration of five minerals for human health; If there has been an increasing number of cases registered in the dispensary of Koudiadiène; If those diseases are the same suffered by the workers of the mine … Then we consider that the security measures carried out by the company are clearly insufficient. That the mining activity is causing the emission of dust that affects the people of Koudiadiène and that dust is harmful to health.
The compensatory measures for local communities affected by mining companies in Africa cannot be left to the good will of the companies. Compensations must obey mandatory measures that are effective, transparent and verifiable by civil society. Otherwise the compensations will be lost or will be mere gestures of beneficence, or truncated by corruption. The EU cannot remain passive by the behavior of its companies and must demand from them the same ethical and legal behavior when they operate abroad.
The case of Koudiadiène is the case of a small company that operates a non-relevant mineral in a region of an African country. It is a small but paradigmatic example of the behavior of European companies operating in developing countries, especially in Africa. The EU must commit itself to the sustainability of the planet and look for long-term solutions that do not only look for their economic benefits but also prioritize the sustainability of natural resources. The EU has the obligation to be more demanding in its Transparency Directives, in the respect of human rights and, of course, to seriously commit itself to the initiative of the binding treaty of United Nations Business and Human Rights.
Washington D.C. (CNA/EWTN News).- The suicide rate in the United States is at its highest in at least 50 years, and is contributing to a decrease in the nation’s life expectancy, the federal government said Thursday.
Life expectancy for the U.S. population declined to 78.6 in 2017, down from 78.7 the previous year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a new report.
“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” said CDC director Robert Redfield in a Nov. 29 statement.
The United States saw more than 47,000 suicides in 2017, an increase of more than 2,000 from the previous year.
In addition, there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths last year, a 10 percent rise from 2016. Deaths from heroin and prescription opioids remained steady from the previous year, while fentanyl deaths drastically increased.
Other findings in the CDC report included an increase in gun deaths, totaling almost 40,000. Deaths from heart disease – the top killer in the U.S. – are no longer declining, while deaths from flu and pneumonia increased by 6 percent.
While U.S. life expectancy had been rising for decades, the country is now seeing its longest period of generally declining life expectancy since World War I, according to the Associated Press.
HARARE, March 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Jimmy Gata, 19, recites an anti-drugs poem at “Theatre in the Park” in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, jumping and gesturing on the stage, as spectators clap and cheer on the former addict.
Before finding his passion for the spoken word, Gata regularly took BronCleer, a cough syrup often smuggled in from South Africa that contains codeine, a painkiller similar to morphine. If enough is drunk, it also intoxicates like alcohol.
“Since Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association took me in to learn about film-making and acting and poetry, I have had no time for (BronCleer),” said Gata, a trained motor mechanic.
There are no accurate figures on the number of drug users in Zimbabwe. The Ministry of Health and Child Care says about 3,000 people nationwide are suffering mental illness directly related to drug abuse.
For 19-year-old Innocent Ndaramashe, an emerging R&B and hip-hop music star who was addicted to substances like BronCleer, the performing arts came to his rescue just in time.
“My music encourages my peers not to consume drugs because they damage our health,” Ndaramashe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “As a young man who has been taking drugs, I decided to preach against the abuse of drugs through my music career.”
In a country where many people struggle to earn a living in the informal economy, the theatre association has also helped out the poor and hungry.
“(It) gives food parcels, groceries to the needy in my community of which I am also a beneficiary because I am very old,” said 73-year-old Tambudzai Mlambo, a resident of Mbare township in Harare.
As Zimbabwe battles drug abuse made worse by a shortage of jobs for young people, the government acknowledges the contribution of the community arts scene.
“Groups that have of late emerged have helped to keep former drug addicts focused on theatre or art. This diverts their attention from drugs to concentrate on something new and positive for their wellbeing,” said Dorcas Sithole, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s mental health department.
The state is doing what it can to fight drug abuse in tough circumstances, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are trying to prevent drug users from turning into addicts,” she said, explaining how the government puts them on withdrawal programmes in hospital and is also planning to open rehabilitation centres.
In addition, anti-drugs activists say there is a need for occupational therapy such as theatre, which also helps young people build their self-esteem.
“Nurturing talent provides an avenue for accomplishment as opposed to helplessness which is associated with the onset of drug use,” said Hilton Nyamukapa, programme coordinator for the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network.
Established seven years ago, the national network advocates for strategies to address problems linked to drug use in Zimbabwe and across Southern Africa.
Former drug addict Innocent Ndaramashe, now an up-and-coming musician, works in a studio in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Feb. 14, 2018.
Former drug addict Innocent Ndaramashe, now an up-and-coming musician, works in a studio in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Feb. 14, 2018.
A pioneer of the idea of using theatre to tackle drug problems, Ernest Nyatanga, founder and president of the Ngoma Yorira Theatre Association, said his organisation pays former addicts for their acting.
“Rewarding former drug users for their performances in theatre helps to motivate them and cultivate in them a desire to work for themselves,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Recently the association shot films highlighting social and economic issues facing the country, such as “The Delinquent” which depicts a misled young man who takes drugs while in school. The films are shown at Harare’s “Theatre in The Park”.
Nyatanga said the association donates some of the proceeds from its performances – which it stages in townships in remote areas too – to local orphanages and poor widows.
And it has helped feed people going hungry when drought hit food supplies in rural and urban areas.
It also recruits community members to sell recordings of theatre productions on a commission basis by the roadside.
“We are an association that lives amongst ordinary people, and we care for their needs,” Nyatanga said.
So far, the theatre association has helped more than 340 individuals change their lives for the better, 30 percent of whom were hooked on drugs, he said.
Parents like Linda Masarira, 36, whose 18-year-old son was an addict but has now resumed his secondary-school studies, are grateful for its work.
“It is a miracle – my son is reforming; he is now an upcoming hip-hop star while he is also into theatre and as a result he has… stopped using drugs,” Masarira said.
FAITH AND FOOTBALL
Community religious groups like the Christian Youths Fellowship Association (CYFA) based in Chegutu, a farming town 100 km (62 miles) west of Harare in Mashonaland West Province, have also joined the fight against drugs.
Patrick Imbayago, founder and director of the CYFA, said his group has shown anti-drugs films in urban and rural townships.
“After seeing these kinds of films, few would return to drug abuse because… drug abusers are shown as eventually losing their marbles, going mad,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The CYFA also funds football training for young people. “The more we occupy them with social activities like soccer, the less our youths turn to drug abuse,” said Imbayago.
Reporting by Jeffrey Moyo; editing by Megan Rowling.
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/
In a deal similar to the one that turned the tide against
AIDS, manufacturers and charities will make chemotherapy
drugs available in six poor countries at steep discounts.
OCT. 7, 2017 | NAIROBI, Kenya — In a remarkable initiative modeled on the campaign against AIDS in Africa, two major pharmaceutical companies, working with the American Cancer Society, will steeply discount the prices of cancer medicines in Africa.
Under the new agreement, the companies — Pfizer, based in New York, and Cipla, based in Mumbai — have promised to charge rock-bottom prices for 16 common chemotherapy drugs. The deal, initially offered to a half-dozen countries, is expected to bring lifesaving treatment to tens of thousands who would otherwise die.
Pfizer said its prices would be just above its own manufacturing costs. Cipla said it would sell some pills for 50 cents and some infusions for $10, a fraction of what they cost in wealthy countries.
The price-cut agreement comes with a bonus: Top American oncologists will simplify complex cancer-treatment guidelines for underequipped African hospitals, and a corps of IBM programmers will build those guidelines into an online tool available to any oncologist with an internet connection.
“Reading this gave me goose bumps,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said after seeing an outline of the deal. “I think this is a phenomenal idea, and I think it has a good chance of working.”
It reminded him, he said, of his work in 2002 helping design the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Pepfar, as it is known, has been a success: over 14 million Africans are now on H.I.V. drugs, many of them thanks to American aid.
“It’s exactly what we went through then,” Dr. Fauci said. “Finding the countries with the highest burden, figuring out how to approach treatment differently in each one, and getting the prices down.”
Cancer now kills about 450,000 Africans a year. By 2030, it will kill almost 1 million annually, the World Health Organization predicts. The most common African cancers are the most treatable, including breast, cervical and prostate tumors.
But here they are often lethal. In the United States, 90 percent of women with breast cancer survive five years. In Uganda, only 46 percent do; in Gambia, a mere 12 percent do.
The complicated deal was struck by the cancer society, along with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, founded in 2002 by former President Bill Clinton; IBM; the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of top American cancer hospitals; and the African Cancer Coalition, a network of 32 oncologists in 11 African countries.
“I have a friend back home whose daughter has cancer, and I can’t believe the outpouring of support she got, like special lacrosse games and T-shirts,” said Megan O’Brien, the cancer society’s director of global cancer treatment and the chief organizer of the deal.
“There’s nothing like that in Africa — but I can save a child with leukemia for $300. That’s a disease that has a 90 percent cure rate in America, and a 90 percent death rate in Africa.”
An Ill-Prepared Continent As more Africans survive into middle or old age, cancer rates are climbing rapidly. But most countries here are ill-equipped for the fight.
There are few oncologists, radiotherapy machines or advanced surgical suites. Tumors are often misdiagnosed or even blamed on witchcraft, and 80 percent go undetected until they have spread to lymph nodes or distant organs.
Doctors often see cases far worse than Western doctors ever do: babies with growths half as big as their heads, women with breast tumors the size of softballs that have broken the skin, putrid and weeping blood.
On a recent day in July, Brenda Nakisuyi, 17, sat silent and despondent in a darkened room at Kawempe Home Care, a cancer hostel for children in Kampala, Uganda.
Burkitt lymphoma had torn open her left cheek, leaving a crater that looked as if a cherry bomb had exploded in her mouth.
“In our village, they know malaria, they know HIV, they know typhoid — but they don’t know cancer,” said her mother, Florence Namwase, 48. “People said Brenda was bewitched, and they began to shun her.”
Many Africans who get cancer assume they are doomed.
“I came here to see if I was condemned to death,” said a wry George Odongo Ogola, 73, a retired high school principal being treated for prostate cancer at the M.P. Shah Hospital in Nairobi.
“But the doctor says they got it in a nascent stage and gave me a 99.9 percent chance that it will be contained,” he added. “I brought all my children and their wives so they could hear this. Here, once you are diagnosed with cancer, they treat you like a dead person.”
Even doctors — especially rural ones — may be slow to recognize the disease.
Paul Mugumya, a lively 7-year-old in the Kawempe hostel, had three hernia operations before surgeons realized that something else was swelling his abdomen, which now has a football-shaped tumor with tangerine-sized blisters on it.
And Flavia Anyesi, 4, who stood in her crib at the Uganda Cancer Institute in pink and white hair beads matching her pink nightgown, was first sent to a dentist to have a tooth pulled, said her mother, Teopista Nafuna.
Only when Flavia’s jaw kept swelling did doctors realize something else was amiss. She, too, has Burkitt lymphoma.
Even when in agony, victims may be too poor to travel for treatment. Patients who find the money to reach urban hospitals often sleep on mats on the verandas or in parks between their daily infusions, or while waiting for biopsy results, which can take weeks.