Medical Waste – A Waste of Life

24 03 2010

Photo: Robert Maletta

Children, ravaging dump sites filled with toxic treasures waiting to be resold or reused, are not an uncommon sight in some parts of the world. They’re on the lookout for syringes, among other items, as they feel a perfectly good syringe is too valuable to be used only once.

This scene replays itself in many developing areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the former Soviet Republics, and Latin America.

Infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are also not uncommon in many of these areas.  A significant source of infection is the reclamation and reuse of improperly disposed medical waste, including syringes, needles, tubing, soiled dressings, and contaminated medical devices.

Part of the problem is cultural.

In some areas of developing countries, there is a cultural belief that an injection cures all ails. The patient complains of fatigue or general malaise? He gets a vitamin injection. Is there a skin infection or respiratory illness? An injection of antibiotics is the answer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that in developing countries, 5% or less of injections are given as immunizations, which prevent infections. The other 95% are given as curative therapy, to treat an existing illness rather than prevent infection, and most of these injections are unnecessary.

Oral medications could easily take the place of an injection. However, culturally, injection therapy is deemed most effective and is popular. There is a deep, underlying sense of value associated with injections.

WHO estimates that at least 50% of injections given for curative reasons are unsafe injections. This is based on data from five regions of the developing world, representing 19 countries. This would include single-use syringes that have been reused, multi-use syringes that have not been adequately sterilized, and the contamination of multi-dose vials.

It’s conservatively estimated that a single syringe might be used on three to ten patients before it is disposed of or sterilized. Because of the high incidence of infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, the likelihood of continuing to spread these diseases, even to the healthy population, increases.

AD or Auto-Disable syringes are one way to prevent the reuse of syringes and, consequently, the spread of disease.  Proper disposal of medical waste is another way to prevent infection.

However, education and supervision of health care workers, and patient education, are primary to changing these risky practices.

Support PATH in its work to develop safer methods of medical waste disposal.

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