I am all for a Gin and Tonic on a hot Bangkok night like the ones after a couple of days at the 2018 conference on injury prevention in November.
But I was very moved when American trauma specialist Dr Catherine Staton suggested that Safety 2018 in Bangkok should formally recognise that harmful alcohol use contributed to all types of injuries, causing morbidity and economy loss.
There she was, an experienced emergency care doctor holding her newborn son in her arms, pushing for change in attitudes. She had seen in the United States and Africa what alcohol had done. So has nearly every safety expert I’ve ever interviewed. Yet it seemed to take the conference by surprise when Dr Staton sprung the amendment on them during the closing session. Apparently nobody had ever rocked the boat like this before.
Dr Staton reminded me of the early suffragettes – think of Mrs. Winifred Banks in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins who sang about soldiers in petticoats, and those women swearing that “lips that touched alcohol would not touch theirs”.
In nearly every session at the conference, alcohol was included as a factor.
In life, it is hard to find a family, mine included, where alcohol has not caused poverty, hardship and violence. I had a brutal grandfather, an alcoholic, who was handy with the belt and the buckle towards my mother.
In Ireland, Irish Water Safety’s Roger Sweeney found alcohol was a factor in a third of drownings. About 75 per cent of those who drowned were male, Mr Sweeney. the organisation’s deputy chief executive said.
This reminded me of a colleague who grew up in Wales telling me that Friday night drownings among males were as common as the kitchen going up in flames after a drunken desire to fry up a few chips.
Over drinks – near a pool at the Hilton in Bangkok – we shared stories about deaths caused by alcohol. Apparently fatal drownings in the Thames in London, UK, are on the rise. Many are morose and drunk men plunging to the deaths accidentally or killing themselves.
In Australia, Amy Peden’s research found more than 40 per cent of the 770 people who drowned in Australia’s inland waterways in the past 10 years had been drinking. Of the adults who had been drinking and subsequently drowned, 70 per cent would have failed a random breath test on the roads.
Similar research presented by In India, a leading burns doctor, Dr Shobra Chamania, said alcohol was increasingly becoming a factor in cases where drunk men burned their wives, often fatally.
I was fortunate to attend the conference thanks to a fellowship from the AIPN, for which I was very grateful.
When I think back on the conference, some things stood out::the children of Surat Thani floating on their backs with water between their legs – demonstrating how they learn to float and the generosity and welcome of the local Merit Maker team, who were so proud of what they had achieved. This has prompted me to think of ways to cover drowning in Africa and in Asia in 2019.
I was also struck by the numerous versions of pad thai – who knew there was a different type of pad thai for lunch and dinner?
I also enjoyed the collegial atmosphere after each day’s meetings of dinners and a few cold beers.
I hope that continues.
But the world needs more women and men like Dr Staton to state what seems so obvious. Alcohol is a problem that is so common that we sometimes don’t even see it anymore.
Julie Power is a senior reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald, which is now owned by Nine.