Thursday, November 23, 2006

Back in London after an overnight flight from Cape Town. Heathrow, as always, seriously dysfunctional – this time it was a clogging up of the luggage delivery. It is now so obvious that it cannot cope with the volume of passengers, not helped by the British Airports Authority forgetting that hey are meant to be running an airport and not a shopping mall. Anyway, despite the intense irritations, still really enthused by events at the OXHA summit.
If you haven’t checked out the web site - - don’t hang around reading this. I really liked the video and audio blogs – David Matthews – a quiet, apparently serious diabetologist at Oxford missed his vocation as a stand up comedian – great audio blogs, David! Eddie McCaffrey must be on track for an Oscar as a director of so many superb film clips! Trying to get chronic diseases on the agenda is a colossal task but this web site must be a key part of any successful strategy.
Anyway, back to the office and a lunch time seminar by Barbara Profeta, one of our research students. Barbara has been doing some fascinating work in the Altai region of Russia. This is in southern Siberia and has the dubious distinction of lying under the flight path of the Russian rockets fired from the Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan. Unlike the US launching sites, in Florida and California, where the fuel tanks fall into the sea, these ones fall on land, among the Altai people. As if it was not enough to have large chunks of metal fall from the sky, these things contain unspent and highly toxic rocket fuel. The health of the Altai people is dreadful, but then so is that of the other inhabitants of Russia. The difference is that many of the inhabitants of Altai blame their poor health on the rockets. There is, inevitably, a small problem – the toxic rocket fuel is undetectable in the environment.
I’ll leave it to Barbara to describe her own work but the fascinating story she tells raises lots of issues. Why is it that people so often focus on the wrong reasons for disease and ill-health? There are many reasons why the people of the Altai have poor health, not least the severe deprivation and heavy drinking, but falling rockets is not one of them. Similarly, ask 100 people about cancer in Ukraine and you can be sure many of them will blame Chernobyl, conveniently ignoring the ubiquitous cigarette smoke. That reminds me of a time many years ago when I was working in Northern Ireland, where there were concerns about radioactive releases from the nuclear reprocessing plant, Sellafield, just across the Irish Sea. These concerns were expressed at public meetings in rooms that contained highly toxic levels of tobacco smoke that seemed not to worry those protesting about the much smaller (and possibly only theoretical) hazard from radiation.
In a strange way, that takes us back to Cape Town. Faced with an enormous toll of death and disability from non-communicable diseases, the world’s political leaders are finally galvanised into action on health by …. Avian influenza, a disease that has so far afflicted less than 200 people. Yet as Derek Yach pointed out in Cape Town, while avian influenza kills 50% of those affected, so does smoking cigarettes. The different degree of urgency in tackling these two problems is striking.

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