The idea that health is a purely personal matter related just to individual choice of diet and lifestyle isolates each of us with our own health problems as completely as if we were in a quarantine ward. Understanding the more fundamental causes of illness helps us break out of this isolation and take the sort of collective action that is needed to keep ourselves fit.
SYMPTOMS: Food with harmful additives, dangerous toys and household equipment, doctors overprescribing drugs.
DIAGNOSIS: Lack of responsibility and accountability of manufacturers and advertisers, lenient legislation, overdependence on doctors' expertise.
PRESCRIPTION: Take on the manufacturers
From a small beginning with just 500 members in 1959 campaigning to improve the quality of household goods, the Australian Consumers' Association has expanded to 160,000 members crusading on broad health and social issues too. Its Public Affairs Unit, formed in 1979, channels consumers complaints, comments and recommendations to the government and media. About 22,000 requests for action many concerning health are now received each year. ACA concentrates not only on nutrition and product safety, but has also begun to tackle the running of the entire medical system in Australia. The existing fee-for-service system means people want a diagnosis and a drug for every consultation. ACA argues that nationalised medicine will help solve problems like this.
Australian Consumers' Association,
28-30 Queens Street,
Chippendale, NSW 2008.
SYMPTOMS: 50 million work-place accidents cause at least 100,000 deaths a year. Millions of workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals, dusts and gases.
DIAGNOSIS: Factories run by. corporations responsible to shareholders instead of workers.
PRESCRIPTION: Combat the dangers
'Headaches, dizziness and general nausea were becoming common in a paint and varnish factory. The worst fumes seemed to be coming from mixing the paint stripper. Matters came to a head when one worker collapsed from methylene chloride fumes. The factory inspector was called in and workers refused to work with the paint stripper until something was done. Within three weeks the management devised a method which reduced the fumes to an acceptable level.'
This is an excerpt from the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science's publication 'Hazards Bulletin', produced by their very active Work Hazards Group. Set up in 1968, BSSRS believes that science and technology, far from being neutral, are geared to producing profit and maintaining the present political system.
The Work Hazards Group is composed of BSSRS members who believe that significant improvements in working conditions can best be achieved by workers becoming better informed about the dangers that might be lurking in their working environment, and by organising at their place of work to improve these conditions.
In addition to the monthly 'Hazards Bulletin' which informs readers of recent technical developments, their dangers, and of worker and community attempts to combat those dangers the Work Hazards Group also produce a variety of other pamphlets and leaflets, teach on Health and Safety courses for Trades Unionists and answer enquiries about health and safety. Nineteen 'Hazards Groups throughout the UK are campaigning for changes in local living and working conditions and welcome new members.
BSSRS Work Hazards Group.
9, Poland Street, London W1.
SYMPTOMS: Millions of deaths caused by preventable and curable disease in the developing world, where one in two have no access to essential drugs. Millions of dollars spent on inessential drugs and tonics for a small minority. 6,000 deaths in the UK alone as a result of bad prescribing.
DIAGNOSIS: Most drugs are produced by multinational corporations with healthy profits in mind rather than healthy bodies. So drugs are aimed at those who can afford them rather than those who need them.
PRESCRIPTION: Monitor the market
The Rational Health Campaign, organised by Oxfam UK's Campaign's Unit, aims to get the right drugs to the right people at a fair price. Launched in June this year, the group was formed to campaign against irresponsible drug marketing practices and for the implementation of the World Health Organisation' s 'Essential Drugs' policy (see article in this issue).
It is one of many organisations that comes under the umbrella of Health Action International, an international network of groups in rich and poor worlds that lobbies to get health issues a fair hearing in the international community. On the drugs front, for example, HAl plans to distribute copies of two publications about drug abuse in the Third World to delegates at the 1984 World Health Assembly in Geneva.
Up to 19 Rational Health groups have now been formed throughout the UK. Among their activities are organising non- expert travellers to the Third World to take part in a research project investigating the distribution of harmful drugs to treat diarrhoea. Another group has been urging local chemists and doctors to sign the 'Rational Health Declaration', which among other things calls on the UK government to support the production of low-cost generic' drugs (as effective as 'brand-named' drugs but often less than half the price. One study estimated that generic drugs could knock 70 percent off the rich world's drug bill.), and to adopt an international code of pharmaceutical marketing practise. Others have been keeping an eye on medical and pharmaceutical publications and encouraging local papers and radio stations to cover the issue.
Rational Health Campaign.
Oxfam, 274, Banbury Road,
Oxford OX2 7DZ.
SYMPTOMS: The majority of visits to doctors are for illnesses and injuries that are either untreatable by modern medicine or preventable by changes in environment and lifestyle.
DIAGNOSIS: The majority of health budgets are spent on doctors and hospitals who try to patch up the victims of an unhealthy social and economic system. The result is that many people only think of health when they fall ill by which time it is often too late to tackle the causes of their illness.
PRESCRIPTION: Service the Health Service
Britain's 'decaying' inner cities are the focus of much concern. And the decay is as much of community life, health and morale as it is of buildings and services. The aim of the Waterloo Health Project is to keep decay at bay in one area of London by involving local people in organising their own activities to improve health and to fight for changes in existing health services.
Originally based at the Waterloo Action Centre a busy, well-used resource centre, already the venue for other community groups and providing a number of other community services the Waterloo Health Project had a set of ready-made entry points into local peoples' lives.
Since its first tentative beginnings in 1978, local people have now organised over 20 different health-related., groups and activities: from relaxation and first aid classes to discussion groups on depression, menopause and rheumatism.
Health issues are raised at tenants' and pensioners' meetings, and old people's problems are tackled in the various health groups.
One tendency has been for groups formed to look at particular illness problems to find themselves discussing positive ways of maintaining health. instead. The Women's
Health Group, for instance, decided to set up their own yoga class. And the Pensioner's s Group have been particularly active, with meetings to look at drug side effects, stress, bereavement, constipation, heart trouble, anatomy and incontinence. And both the Women's Group and the Pensioner's Group have together taken major roles in a campaign to reorganise and expand services provided by the Government at an under-used local community clinic.
For information about getting involved in collective action to promote health, contact:
Community Health Initiatives Resource Unit,
NCVO, 26, Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HU.
SYMPTOMS: Each year 95,000 in the UK and over one million worldwide die prematurely from diseases caused by smoking.
DIAGNOSIS: Addiction to a deadly product permitted by government and irresponsibly promoted by manufacturers.
PRESCRIPTION: Change the legislation
Smoking is by far the largest cause of avoidable illness and death in the UK, killing four times as many people as all those killed by road accidents, drink, drugs and all the other known preventable causes of death put together. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is a charity, set up in 1971 by the Royal College of Physicians of London, with the aim of alerting people to the dangers of smoking.
Six out of ten smokers say they would like to give up smoking and seven out of ten say they have tried. They fall because they are addicted to a habit backed in the UK alone by a $160 million a year advertising campaign. Less than one fiftieth of this amount is spent on health education.
Apart from laws prohibiting sale of cigarettes to minors and advertising on commercial television, all other restrictions on promotion, along with the requirement to put health warnings on cigarette packets, occur as a result of 'voluntary agreements' between the British Government and the tobacco industry. But this system of voluntary agreements is a failure.
Cigarette companies' sponsorship of sport and art, for instance, is very widespread. Circumventing the voluntary agreement on advertising, it also creates a wholly inappropriate link between smoking and healthy, enlightened activity.
The only way substantially to reduce future disease and death from smoking is to reduce cigarette consumption. And tobacco companies will not 'voluntarily' accept measures which will reduce their sales. The only effective action is to tighten up legislation.
In its 12 year history ASH has pressed Governments to end all forms of tobacco promotion, including advertising, sponsorship and advertising in shops and kiosks. Partly as a result of its health education activities, there are now nine million ex-smokers in the UK, and proportionately fewer young people taking up the habit. Future plans include urging an increase in government spending on health education, increased tobacco taxation, and a complete ban on cigarette advertising.
Action on Smoking and Health,
5/11 Mortimer Street, London,
WIN 7RH, United Kingdom.
SYMPTOMS: Many people particularly women - believe that medical matters are too complicated and scientific for them to do anything about. Often they feel intimidated by the medical profession and lack the confidence to seek knowledge about the functioning of their own bodies.
DIAGNOSIS: The medical profession tends to be dominated by people many of them men who use complicated medical jargon to maintain their superior position and who treat the natural female body functions as though they were illnesses.
PRESCRIPTION: Share the information
'An oasis in a sea of misinformation' is how one reader describes Healthsharing, a spirited magazine about women's health produced by the Toronto-based Women Healthsharing Collective. The quarterly publication, put out by seven feminists, some of whom are in the health profession, is purposefully written in a style meant to appeal to a broad female readership.
The articles are clean, crisp, lucid and devoid of medical jargon. And that's the main reason for producing the magazine: to bring women's health issues down to earth. The editors believe that all health problems especially women's have been jealously guarded by the high priests of the medical profession. 'Healthsharing' is an attempt to breach their ivory tower.
More than just a source of information, 'Healthsharing' also forms a link in a chain of women's health information and action groups across the country. One guiding principle of the magazine is the need for women to influence decisions that affect their health. There is also a firm belief that health issues from toxic shock syndrome to midwifery cannot just be dealt with medically. Environmental pollution, working conditions, harmful drugs all have to be considered.
The magazine combines practical information like how to treat low back pain without drugs with longer analytic articles on everything from natural medicines to the politics of reproduction. A special issue on feminist therapy has become widely used in public health centres and womens' studies courses. It is this artful mixture of the personal and political that gives 'Healthsharing' its appeal. But its the fact that women are so ill-served by the current health system that makes it necessary.
P0 Box 230, Station M, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada, M6S 4T3.
Telephone: (416) 598-2658.
Subscriptions: $8 (CDN)/year.