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Wednesday, 27 July 2011






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Government Gazette

Let the truth prevail on ill-health issues

There is more heat rather than light in the current public debates and discussions on the issue of spreading kidney ailments in this country. One issue which has given rise to much controversy is the hypothesis in some sections that arsenic, purportedly in rice, is a dominant factor in spreading kidney disease. We have it on the authority of Senior Minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana that the number of local kidney patients exceeds 20,000. The magnitude of the problem is, therefore, plain to see and the earlier there are some decided views on these issues, the better.

Right away the position needs to be taken that only the empirical sciences could shed some light on these questions. Since the issues are of a scientific nature, only the scientific method could unravel the truth for us on the points at issue. Resort to any other supposed methodology could only obfuscate the issues under discussion rather clarify them for us. Therefore, articulate sections would do well to reserve judgment on these matters until scientific investigations are complete and it could be some time before the whole truth is bared, given the meticulousness with which scientific probes need to be conducted.

As in the case of kidney ailments, cancers are also a worrying phenomenon in Sri Lanka today. In fact, cancers are so rampant that one is almost tempted to say they have reached alarming proportions. An interview we carried on the Opinion page yesterday, with the Senior Oncologist of the Maharagama Cancer Hospital, pointed to the numerous factors involved in the spread of cancer. Besides, alcohol consumption and smoking, there is the popularity of junk food that needs to be taken into consideration. There is sound reason to believe that junk food consumption on a notable scale is a causative factor in the spread of cancer among the more youthful sections of our population.

There are issues aplenty here for our health authorities. While the country must be continuously counseled on the correct dietary habits and on the most ideal life styles, scientific investigations must continue on these questions which impact the well being of the people so closely. It is also important to remember that these investigations should be carried out in an impartial and detached manner. Partisan interests and prejudices should not be allowed to predetermine the outcome of these probes.

For instance, the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizer has led to the speculation that arsenic contamination of the people's food intake is a major factor in the spread of kidney disease in particularly the North Central Province.

On the face of it, this is a plausible explanation but the hypothesis must be decisively proved and until then we are obliged not to ascribe to hearsay on this issue. As far as we are aware, reputed scientific institutions in this country are yet to establish that our rice varieties contain arsenic in significant amounts. Until it is conclusively proved that our rice varieties are heavily contaminated by arsenic, the link between arsenic poisoning and kidney disease cannot be unambiguously established.

We have dwelt at some length on the need for scientific rigidity on these issues, because sense rather than nonsense and speculative thinking need to guide our attitudes and policy making on these matters. It would be most unfortunate if rumour and hearsay are allowed to take the place of scientific truth on these questions. The effects of rumour on rice consumption, for instance, could be quite damaging because rice consumption could take a nose dive and the common weal would be badly affected.

Besides the state constantly putting the record straight on these issues, scientific opinion must come out loud and clear on the side of truth and the latter opinion segment must be heard over and above the din of rumour. Unfortunately, currently, it is rumour and hearsay which drown out sensible opinion and disinterested scientific thinking. This situation needs to be reversed in the national interest.

Ill-health, however, has come to centre stage of local affairs. It is clear that very many people do not abide by scientifically validated dietary requirements. Nor are desirable lifestyle changes quickly effected by particularly consumerist-oriented sections of the public. There needs to be deep soul-searching on these issues. What is believed to be development cannot be permitted to overshadow health issues. If there is such a tendency, the inference is inescapable that our concept of development is fundamentally flawed and is badly in need of revision.

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