Health24.com | Legalise illicit drugs and save lives, says ex-cop

Neil Woods was an undercover narcotics officer in Britain for 14 years and estimates that he is responsible for 1 000 years’ worth of prison sentences.

But six years ago, he quit the police to campaign for illicit drugs to be decriminalised because he believes that the “war on drugs” is causing more harm than good.

Woods recently addressed the SA Drug Policy conference in Cape Town.

Drug users murdered

“Every time police develop new tactics to address the illicit drug trade, the counter-measure from organised crime is to be more violent and more intimidating,” says Woods. “The most successful gangster is one who can most successfully intimidate the community.”

In communities where Woods worked undercover, gangsters raped the sisters and girlfriends of those they believed were informers. Murders of drug users – sometimes by poisoned drugs – was a common tactic to ensure that no one informed police.

“Generally, police catch the gangsters that are the easiest to catch. So it’s like a Darwinian soup. The more successful and violent ones survive.”

After years of infiltrating the gangster underworld that controls illicit drugs, Woods had serious post-traumatic stress – partly caused by the anguish at being instrumental in ensuring that many people in lowly positions that he befriended ended up in prison.

Woods now heads an organisation called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and campaigns for police to adopt a more humane approach to drug users.

Increase in overdose deaths

The conference, which brings together international and local role players in the illicit drugs sector, heard a number of presentations arguing for the decriminalisation of illicit drugs. The key argument is that the prohibition-based approach is causing more harm than good.

“The war on drugs’ doesn’t work, yet $100 billion (±R1 300 billion) is spent on it every year while only $160 million (±R2 100 million) is being spent harm reduction,” said Olga Szubert, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager, Harm Reduction International.

Harm reduction refers to programmes to assist drug users, including supplying people who inject drugs with clean needles to prevent HIV infection and giving heroin users opioids (less harmful drugs) to wean them off heroin.

Szubert said that while huge amounts of money were being spent on a hardline approach to drug use, this was doing nothing to reduce drug use.

Drug laws used selectively

“In Canada, there has been a 327% increase in drug overdose deaths since 2008, and in the UK there has been a 137% increase,” said Szubert. “One in five prisoners is being held on drug charges.”

Harm Reduction International is campaigning for “10% of the money being spent on ineffective drug control to be shifted to harm reduction by 2020”.

Former Australian police officer Greg Denham, who is an international police consultant, said that “police should not pursue minor drug possession and drug use charges”.

Speakers also noted that drug laws were being used selectively, with police being five times more likely to search and arrest people of colour than white people for drug-related crimes.

“There is endemic racism, used to control a certain community,” confirmed Woods. “After arrest, a black person is 13 times more likely to be sent to prison for drugs than white person in the UK.” – Health-e News.

Health24.com | Breakthrough: Doctors can now ‘edit’ genes in human embryos

In a first-ever experiment, geneticists have successfully modified a human embryo to remove a mutation that causes a life-threatening heart condition.

This is the first study to demonstrate that a gene-editing technique can be used in human embryos to convert mutant genes back to their normal version, the researchers said.

This new procedure tackled a genetic mutation in human embryos that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited condition in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick.

The mutation was successfully repaired in 72% of 18 embryos that were created in a lab using sperm from a male donor who carries the hereditary heart condition, said team member Dr Paula Amato. She is an adjunct associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland.

Unlike other parts of the world in which cardiomyopathy is rare, heart muscle disease is endemic in Africa.

Impact on future generations

The procedure also might work in other genetic diseases caused when a person has one good copy and one mutated copy of a gene, Amato said. These include cystic fibrosis and cancers caused by mutated BRCA genes.

“This embryo gene correction method, if proven safe, can potentially be used to prevent transmission of genetic disease to future generations,” Amato said.

But while the procedure is considered to be the first of its kind, human trials are not currently allowed in the United States.

genetic editing of mutation causing heart disease

A serious heart condition

Hereditary hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs in about one out of every 500 adults, and is passed along when a person winds up with one good copy and one mutated copy of a gene called MYBPC3, the researchers said.

There’s a 50% chance that the children of a parent with the disease will inherit the genetic mutation for the disease, according to a Mayo Clinic estimate.

People with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are at increased risk of heart failure and sudden heart death. The condition is the most common cause of sudden death in otherwise healthy young athletes, researchers said in background notes.

How the ‘editing’ is done

To repair the problem, the research team “broke” the mutated version of the MYPBC3 gene inside human embryos, using technology that allows scientists to snip a specific target sequence on a mutant gene.

Scientists discovered that when this occurs, a DNA repair process employed within human embryos activates to fix the broken gene, using the normal copy of the gene as a template.

The result: an embryo with two healthy copies of the gene that, if implanted in a woman and allowed to gestate, should result in a baby free from risk of hereditary cardiomyopathy. Further, any children descended from that baby should also be free from this genetic risk.

The researchers found that when they performed this procedure, all the cells in corrected embryos wound up containing two normal copies of the gene, Amato said. The new report was published in the journal Nature.

The next step

Researchers will next focus on testing the safety and improving the efficiency of the CRISPR-Cas9 process, possibly by using other genetic tools in combination with it, Mitalipov said. After that, they could proceed to human trials, in which the corrected embryos would be implanted with the goal of establishing pregnancy.

In the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration is prohibited from considering clinical trials related to germline genetic modification, Amato said. In addition, the US National Institutes of Health are not allowed to use federal funds to promote embryo research. It is possible that human trials could occur in another country with laws allowing such procedures, Mitalipov said.

In the area of stem cell research, South Africa allows the derivation of human embryonic stem cells from excess In vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos, and also allows for the creation of human embryos for research.

Health24.com | 5 diseases you can pick up at the office

The workplace is an easy place for germs to spread, and the smaller and more overcrowded the premises, the easier it is to get sick. 

“The size of an office space in addition to the number of employees plays a role in the spread of illnesses in the workplace,” says independent registered practitioner, Dr Aaseema Mugjenkar. “The more confined and crowded the work place is, the easier the spread of infection.”

“Ventilation also plays a role – having enough open windows helps maintain a good airflow generated through a specific area, so that the clean air may replace the ‘virus-containing’ air,” Dr Mugjenkar adds.

Here are five common illnesses and conditions you can pick up at the office:

1. Backache

Your bones, muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments work together to carry your body weight, as well as any extra load that you may add. Many things can cause backache, such as poor posture at your desk, a pinched nerve, bending awkwardly, or lifting a heavy object without the proper support.

Slouching at your work desk without taking enough breaks, lifting an object that is more than 20% your body weight, or bending incorrectly (bending at your waist and not using your legs) could result in back pain.

Back pain can occur at any point along the spine. According to a Health24 article strains, sprains, and minor injuries generally don’t involve any serious or permanent damage to the back. The pain mostly goes away after a few days. If the problem persists or if the pain becomes unbearable, expert medical attention is needed.

Regular exercise, a healthy and balanced diet and maintaining a good body weight may lower your risk of developing back pain. The pain can also be managed with anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.

workplace health

2. Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common headache among teens and adults. Such headaches can be a result of eye strain – especially when sitting for an extended period of time in front of a computer screen.

Headaches are also associated with tension build-up or muscle spasms in the neck, jaw, face, and head. 

Fortunately headaches are manageable with over-the-counter painkillers, but if they persist, it’s advisable to see a doctor.

workplace health

3. Stress-related conditions

For many people, stress is a built-in part of their workday. High levels of job stress may increase the amount of sick leave taken, a study suggests. Demanding and high-stress jobs can put your mental health at risk.

Stress can have physical effects on the body, such as backache, headaches, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems. Stress can also be linked to psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, poor concentration and poor decision-making.

“Stress causes many health conditions, such as hypertensive disease (high blood pressure) which can lead to heart disease,” says Dr Mugjenkar.

“Bad habits caused by stress, such as constant eating, can lead to obesity and diabetes.”

workplace health

4. Viral influenza

Closed environments are a breeding ground for the flu virus. Air-conditioned office spaces are prone to outbreaks of flu that run their course over a number of weeks.

But even though you may not come into direct contact with someone who has the flu, indirect contact such as touching office equipment or doorknobs and then touching your mouth or your nose increases your chances of contracting this viral illness, says Dr Mugjenkar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an incubation period before symptoms of common illnesses such as the flu appear, during which time people can already be contagious.

“Sometimes people can infect others even before they are present with symptoms,” adds Dr Mugjenkar.

It is recommended that you only return to the office 24 hours after your symptoms clear to ensure that you are no longer contagious.

workplace health

5. Gastroenteritis

Also known as the stomach flu, gastroenteritis can spread very quickly from one person to the next, especially if good hand hygiene is not practised.

The stomach flu can be contracted by breathing in contaminated air or drinking contaminated water. It can also be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects, especially if an infected person does not wash their hands.

“In the work place, hand washing is extremely important,” Dr Mugjenkar explains.

“If proper hand washing is not executed after using the toilet and before eating, or if you buy food which has not been prepared properly, it is easy to contract the virus.”

workplace health

Images provided by iStock.