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Posts Tagged ‘medicine’


Friday, February 20th, 2009



What do they do?
The mission of SurfAid International, a non-profit humanitarian organization, is to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in remote areas connected to NZ through surfing. SurfAid is the recipient of the 2007 WANGO (World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations) Humanitarian Award.

How can I get involved?

Donate directly to SurfAid

Schools programme – The SurfAid International Schools Program, sponsored by Billabong, is an excellent way to get involved and interested in a fascinating part of the world and some very important global issues. By organizing fundraisers for SurfAid at your school, you’ll have heaps more opportunities to get involved with the work they do. In 2008, Nick Evemy from Tga Boys College “won” a trip to Indonesia as highest student fundraiser for SurfAid (over $1000) as a branch of the SurfAid schools programme. Billabong underwrote the cost for him and his dad to visit projects we do in the Mentawai Islands. All details are available on SurfAid’s schools website: http://schools.surfaidinternational.org under fundraising.

The anti-vitamin bill

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Anna Wu

There is currently a bill before Parliament that could significantly change the way all natural health products are regulated. Virtually everyone has used, uses or will use a range of therapeutic products and medicines in their lives. The Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill has had minimal media attention, but it is likely to affect more of us than the Anti-Smacking Law ever will.

Many people are opposed to the bill, but there have been recent attempts by the government to try and find a compromise.

What’s the Bill proposing?
NZAussieThe bill looks at creating a joint trans-Tasman (Australian and New Zealand) regulatory scheme for the regulation of natural health products products. Standards will be set to control their quality, safety, efficacy (whether the product does what it says it does) and performance. The manufacture, supply, import and promotion will also be monitored.

Who’s finding this Bill hard to swallow?
The National Party, ACT New Zealand, Greens, Maori Party and Independent Taito Philip Field are all against the Bill. In fact, in December last year the Bill’s first reading scraped through by only one vote. The public has also voiced their concern with several nation-wide marches this year organised and attended by 100s of people who oppose this legislation.

What are they worried about?Vitami8n
The Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill has been nicknamed the “Anti-Vitamin Bill.” Opponents believe the future of natural health products will not be so peachy if the Bill is passed into law. They feel that the interests of New Zealanders will be denied under a joint agency as we have different needs to Australians and products for use in our country would be required to comply with the standards set for the Australian market.

Small businesses in the country’s natural health industry will be at risk. Multi-national corporations may find it easy to meet the new compliance costs but NZ-owned businesses could suffer. If local businesses close down it could reduce the range of products available to consumers and threaten innovation, as competition is reduced. Overall, the prices of therapeutic products and medicines will rise.

National: Health Spokesman Tony Ryall, “Every day New Zealanders are taking supplements. Every day they are trying to protect and improve their health. We want New Zealanders to know that the regime is low cost, not restrictive, and that their choices will be protected. But this legislation does the complete opposite.”

Another major concern is that the proposed trans-Tasman regulatory agency “will undermine the sovereignty of our Parliament.” Regulation will be transferred to an authority headquartered in Canberra “with an office in Wellington”. Because Australia took on patent obligations under the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement, the Bill incorporates these obligations. New Zealand will inherit’ this whether or not it reflects our interests.

Green Party: Sue Kedgley, “It’s a sinister piece of legislation that would involve the New Zealand Parliament handing over its authority to an off-shore agency, set up under Australian law, headquartered in Australia and staffed mainly by Australians.”

VitaminFinally, opponents say natural health products are being unfairly targeted with no justification as they are actually extremely low-risk. The Government hopes the Bill will protect New Zealanders from dodgy medicines. Health Minister Pete Hodgson claimed that between 1996 and 2007, three deaths resulted from natural health products. However it was found that coroners in each case ruled the cause of death could not be attributed to natural health products taken.[1] In addition it was it pointed out that during this same period 8000 deaths were attributed to the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs, with a further 16,000 permanently disabled!

ACT NZ: Leader Rodney Hide, “It’s nuts.”

Who will benefit?
While supporters of the bill believe regulation will benefit the consumer, the Bills sceptics think its big business that will win out. When the 26 submissions on the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill were heard, the 7 that supported the Bill were from pharmaceutical industry based organisations and large Australian-linked companies with financial interests. A United States survey found most people held big Pharma (top-earning pharmaceutical companies in the world) in the same low esteem as tobacco firms.

The Anti Vitamin Bill gets sugar coated: Will that help it go down ?
Because the original bill did not have enough political support, the Government is in the process of consulting other parties about a compromise - a joint agency with Australia will still be established, but makers of New Zealand-based natural health products may choose to be regulated. Those opting out will have to be regulated under a domestic regime and are limited to producing within our shores. To expand business into Australia, they would have to comply with the trans-Tasman agency. This would allow small businesses and producers of traditional medicines to continue operating as usual.

Chinese medicineAccording to Hon. Annette King (Minister of State Services), opponents have been “peddling misinformation” and earlier this year, before the compromise was made, she claimed “the preparation of therapeutic products as part of the traditional practice of medicines will be exempt from the regulatory scheme.” She also denied that “complimentary ingredients or finished products…will be subject to pharmaceutical style regulation.” If that was true, it is ironic that the “compromise” is proposing precisely what the minister was peddling in the original bill.

If you want to learn more or keep up-to-date with what’s happening with the Bill check out the links below.

Reference articles:
Bill risks medicine price rise” by Sarah Meads and Thomas Faunce
Big Pharma not always Beautiful” by Richard Wachman
Sugar coating for contentious medicines and therapeutic products bill” by Audrey Young



Annette King and Minister of Health Pete Hodgson have announced that the Government is not proceeding, at this stage, with the legislation enabling the establishment of a joint agency with Australia to regulate therapeutic products. But the Therapeutics Products and Medicines Bill will remain on the Order Paper to be revisited when sufficient parliamentary support is available… So if you are opposed to this Bill keep taking action!

Read the full press release.

Here, have some chemicals! Do forgive us if we kill you for using them

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Hannah Newport

So, they are going to hang him. Can’t say I’ll miss the fellow. I didn’t know him personally, but from what I can gather from the media, some sources more trustworthy than others, he wasn’t the kindest chap since the Easter bunny. nooseBut as much as I dislike Saddam Hussein, I dislike the hypocrisy of his death sentence even more so. After all, the death he was so apt at condemning upon his Iraqi people, would not have been possible without our good western generosity. Shouldn’t we feel proud!

The US was more than happy with its cushy little business arrangements with Iraq until it didn’t suit them any more. A report entitled “United States Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual-use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the Health Consequences (sic) of the Persian Gulf War” was produced for congress in 1994. It detailed US government-approved shipments of biological agents sent by American companies to Iraq between 1985 and 1991, when Kuwait was “liberated”.

The chemicals detailed in the report as having been exported included Bacillus anthracis, which produces anthrax; Clostridium botulinum; Histoplasma capsulatum; Brucella melitensis; Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli. The same report stated that the US provided Saddam with “dual use” licensed materials which assisted in the development of chemical, biological and missile-system programmes, including chemical warfare agent production facility plant and technical drawings of pesticide production facility plans.

But it would be plain rude to assume that the US was the only country clever enough to make the most of such an economic gold mine. Back in 1988, Britain was kind enough to export to Baghdad ’£200,000 worth of thiodiglycol, one of two components of mustard gas, and another ’£50,000 worth of the same vile substance the following year.

They also sent thionyl chloride to Iraq in 1988 at a price of only ’£26,000. Of course these could be used to make ballpoint ink and fabric dyes. But this was the same country - Britain - that would, eight years later, prohibit the sale of diphtheria vaccine to Iraqi children on the grounds that it could be used for - you guessed it - “weapons of mass destruction”.

How fitting then that these countries would be the first to condemn the man they once shook hands with. (Anyone else remember that cosy moment between Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld? Ah, memories…) And how lovely that now we’ve killed off the main man, we can ignore the other mass murderers who are in power in the new western-supported Iraqi government. A good chance for some reminiscing among old friends, I imagine. Don’t worry folks, we’re not picky who we do business with- war is good for the economy!

“A great day for Iraq”, was what UK Prime Minister Blair said when Saddam was sentenced to hang. Is that what he was saying when Britain was sending him chemicals of death? God only knows what Bush was saying. (Probably something like, “Chemicals we export are of a high quality, and so are the ones we send to other countries”.)

However it is that both governments manage to sleep at night (with a hefty dose of tranquilliser I imagine), it does not excuse the carnage left behind in Iraq. It does not justify the destroyed homes, the torn families and the children left without parents. It does not console the parents left without children. But what the hell, chemicals make our lives better.

Robert Fisk: This was a guilty verdict on America as well, in the Independent, 6 Nov o6


Hanging Saddam will plunge the ME into bloody chaos — on Al Jazeera, 20 Nov 2006
Iraq’s trial of Saddam assailed — International Herald Tribune, 20 Nov 2006
Saddam trial ‘flawed and unsound’
— BBC, 20 Nov 2006

The Pharmaceutical drugs industry: TRIPSy!

Monday, September 18th, 2006

Mariana Gledhill
assorted pillsEveryone in the world desires good health, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone in the world the right to have access to medical care that allows them to have adequate health and wellbeing. Pharmaceutical drugs are often able to help provide this, and help people live longer lives. However, not everyone is able to afford the drugs that they need to take in order to live.

“Big Pharma”
The “Big Pharma”, which make up the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, set prices high in order to make big profits (Robinson, 2001). Patents are put on drugs in order to stop other companies making cheaper copies of them. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) aspects of intellectual property agreement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) backs these companies up. The WTO aims that by 2016, all countries in the world will have laws that will restrict companies from making drugs when they do not have a patent that will allow them to do so (Legrain, 2002).

The power of patents
The Big Pharma argue that honouring of patents is necessary, because they say that Research and Development is expensive. Without the honouring of patents, drug companies will not want to make new drugs. This claim has been disputed. The largest drug companies are the most profitable in the world and they only spend 15% of their budgets on Research and Development, which mostly involves the testing of the drugs.(Angell, 2004)

Where do the drugs come from?
bottle of pillsThe drug companies do not actually discover the new drugs; chemists who are based in universities and other training institutions do. Drug companies merely buy the compounds off these developers. Some of these compounds are existent in nature, but residents of the areas where they have been found do not usually benefit from them.

One example is the Neem tree, which is found in India. This tree is known in Sanskrit as Sarva Roga Nivarini, ‘the curer of all ailments’ and it has been used by Indians for thousands of years in various medicines and fertilizers (Davis, 1998). However, the rights to this tree were sold to W. R. Grace & Co. in 1988. Patenting of natural products by companies for the sake of profit is common, and existing intellectual property laws do not give indigenous people much room to claim the knowledge that their ancestors bequeathed to them (Davis, 1998).

Where is the money in pharmaceuticals?
Drug companies spend most of their budgets on the marketing of drugs, rather than research and development. Big sellers are drugs that are popular in the global North: drugs for conditions such as hay fever, and impotency. There is not much money in drugs for the diseases that attack the populations of the South, and even when there is, drugs are not often made available to these people.

When they are, drug companies milk a lot of publicity from them. This is not to say that they do not make huge differences to people’s lives. Onchoceriasis, also known as river blindness, was a disease that made everyone in Fougadougou, Mali, blind. Now Merek and Co. distribute a drug in this village that prevents onchoceriasis . This has given Fougadougou new life (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

A personal example
Millions of people in the South are affected by AIDS and HIV. I know one of them. She is a girl whom I will call Juanita*. Juanita is barely ten years old and she has recently developed AIDS. She is a bright girl, who is ahead of the other girls in her class, despite having to take lots of time off school due to her condition. She is an affectionate girl who loves playing with dolls. She probably won’t have a 15th birthday. This girl comes from Peru, where the generic drugs that the big Pharma demonise cost about one US dollar a day. This is too expensive for many people in Peru. AIDS drugs made by the big Pharma, with their patents, cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Drug companies say that cheap drugs in the South will cut their profits. That is not true. Drug companies are not going to profit from poor people who often earn a fraction of what the drugs they need cost each year (Legrain, 2002). Drug companies provide drugs that often save lives, but that purpose seems to be in second place to making money, and agreements such as the TRIPS ones are encouraging this trend.
hands holding pills
So what is the answer?
Some people say the answer to the problem is greater regulation, (Angell, 2004) and others think that drug companies should be owned by governments, who can be voted out when they do not what is best for the voters. Drug companies are controversial at the moment. Award winning books have been written about their mistakes and an Oscar winning film has been made about the corruption that exists within them. If they are to improve the health of the world’s people, something needs to change.

* Her real name is not Juanita. I have changed it out of respect for her privacy.



Angell, Marcia (2004) The truth about the drug companies : how they deceive us and what to do about it New York: Random House

Marcia Angell is a doctor who thinks that drug companies need saving from themselves. Her argument is very persuasive, and her insider status in the medical profession is valuable.

Legrain, Philippe (2002) Open World:/ The Truth About Globalisation London: Abacus

Philippe LeGrain has written a book defending free trade. I do not agree with much of what he writes, but the chapter that he is written on the drugs industry (Patently Wrong) disagrees with the TRIPS agreement and sets out a number of reasons why TRIPS is not only immoral but anti free trade’.

Robinson, Jeffrey (2001) Prescription games : money, ego and power inside the global pharmaceutical industry London : Simon & Schuster

Jeffery Robinson’s book is an attack on Big Pharma, and is easy to read. It makes for compelling and chilling reading. Warning: it might make you get quite angry!


Atwood, Margaret (2003) Oryx and Crake London: Bloomsbury

Margaret Atwood is a prizewinning author. Oryx and Crake is a book about what happens when drug companies have too much power and are not regulated. Although this book is set in the future, it touches on many of the ethical problems that the world currently faces with drug companies.

Le Carre, John (2002) The Constant Gardiner London: Sceptre

This book is a murder mystery that ends up being related to corrupt drug companies testing their drugs on unsuspecting people in Africa. In the course of these tests, many people die. An award-winning movie has been made of this book, which Roger Ebert has called the movie of the year for 2005 (I have not seen it).

Other Cited Resources:

British Broadcasting Corporation Miracle Village

This photo journal is about the village of Fougadougou the problems with Onchoceriasis and how the village has changed with the arrival of a preventative drug.

Davis, Michael Biological Diversity and Indigenous Knowledge Research Paper 17 1997-98
This is about how patents on natural substances impact badly on indigenous peoples.

United Nations (1948) “Universal Declaration on Human Rights”

New Internationalist Issue on Big Pharma, Issue 32 in November 2003


  • Yuck, No Thanks in Big Pharma, New Internationalist, has some really ideas about taking action globally.
  • New Zealand is a very small slice of the Big Pharma market, and compared to other countries, we have easy access to the drugs we need. The government subsidises many high cost drugs and people on low incomes can get their prescriptions for reduced prices. However, there are some drugs that are still not sold in New Zealand due to the regulation industry, Pharmac, not allowing them to be sold or subsidised. Lobbying of Pharmac might give some people access to the drugs that can save their lives.
  • Advertising for drugs is currently legal in New Zealand. Now I have nothing against Jude Dobson, but I think that it is a real shame that Drug companies can advertise their products under the pretense of educating people. Maybe you can write a letter to the Health minister calling for the abolishment of advertising by drug companies.
  • Find some isolated areas where injustice is happening in relation to this area. Then talk to the media, find the drug that will help the people and lobby the company(ies) that supply it. If anything happens, it will not change the roots of the injustice, but it will change the lives of some people.

Beyond fair trade - brewing hope

Friday, April 7th, 2006

Grace Leung
hand holding green coffee beans
The Fair Trade movement has been growing significantly over the years and many more cafes and shops now sell fair trade coffee. However, a campus group at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, called “Brewing Hope” works to take a step beyond fair trade by creating relationships between consumers and the communities which grow and harvest their coffee. Brewing Hope buys coffee directly from the autonomous, Zapatista-affiliated coffee cooperative Yachil in Chiapas, Mexico. Taking Fair Trade a step further, Brewing Hope organizes exchanges programs. It brings coffee farmers and cooperative members from Chiapas to Ann Arbor to teach communities about their struggles for autonomy and freedom. Conversely, Brewing Hope brings delegates from Ann Arbor to Chiapas to learn about the stories behind their daily cup of joe.

In July 2005, I was one of 12-person delegation to visit San Cristobal de las Casas and nearby communities in Chiapas.

Our visit included meeting with local and international social and economic justice groups ranging from Chiapas Peace House (an organization that supports overseas volunteers) to CEDICI (a research and advocacy group that investigates into the Mexican military’s oppression of autonomous communities). We visited a vocational training school for indigenous youth so we could see how the next generation acquires skills to bring back to their communities, so that they may be autonomous and independent of government agencies.
4 mexican coffee farmers
We were also fortunate enough to stay the night in Chixilon with a community affiliated with Las Abejas, a non-violent group with similar principles to the Zapatistas. In accordance with the community’s needs, we brought with us medical supplies and other provisions to improve their water storage system. We also visited Acteal, a community who lost 45 members to an attack by paramilitaries, with the aid of the Mexican military, in 1997. It is highly likely that the attack was a response to the community’s quest for autonomy and independence from a corrupt government. We were all deeply inspired by the determination for true justice, and rebellious dignity of the people that we met at Acteal.

One particular woman at Acteal, who had introduced us to the women’s handicraft cooperative, recounted the murder of her brother and father in the 1997 massacre. Speaking only her native tongue of Tzetzal at the time, the event provoked her to learn Spanish, make contacts in nearby cities and organize a women’s handicrafts cooperative to revive and bring economic independence to her community.

Despite the benefits of Fair Trade, many potentials remain to be fulfilled. Indeed, despite getting the certified fair trade price of US$1.26 per pound of unroasted coffee beans, the community that we visited must still walk up to 2 hours to the nearest source of marginally potable water in the dry season. Moreover, with the global price of coffee rising, Fair Trade prices are beginning to be less lucrative for farmers, many of whom are tempted to avoid the processes of fair trade and cooperative participation and selling to middlemen (locally called coyotes) instead. Although in the short term, this means less work for the farmers, it leads to the loss of their Fair Trade certification and leaves them vulnerable to the price fluctuations determined by the coyotes.

Because of the recovering prices of conventional coffee on the international market, the next few years will be testing for the Fair Trade communities to continue to comply with the Fair Trade regulations. Many communities also face labour shortages due to the migration of young people to urban areas in search of waged labour. These were some of the concerns that the community shared with us that consumers usually give limited thought

The delegation provided a valuable opportunity for a reciprocal interaction between consumers and coffee growers, the complexities of which go far beyond a cup of coffee. Visits like ours are a small but significant way of showing solidarity with people struggling for justice and freedom. Perhaps this is a future direction for the Fair Trade movement, one in which the consumer looks beyond the latte in their hands and indeed, all goods, creating a new global economy which brings consumers and producers together in the fight for justice and sustainability.


Read more about Brewing Hope

Find out which cafes near you use fair trade coffee

Learn more about Fair Trade from Trade Aid and the Fair Trade Assosciation of Australia and New Zealand


Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Eva Lawrence

All the time we hear about global pandemics like Bird Flu. We’re always told that we are at risk, but never given the guts of it… Like for instance, HIV/AIDS. What does it mean for me, an average young person living in Aotearoa New Zealand? Why should I care? It’s a scary thing that exists on the other side of the world and we’d rather ignore it right? Wrong.

Currently, about 40 million people live with HIV/AIDS worldwide. 12 000 people are infected with HIV every day

In 2003 there were 188 new diagnoses of HIV reported in Aotearoa New Zealand, the highest ever! The figures for 2005 are likely to be higher. Latest stats show that the rate of new HIV infections among gay/bi men in New Zealand alone was one every four days! In the past five years in Aotearoa New Zealand, the rate of heterosexuals diagnosed with HIV infection is equal to homosexuals diagnosed (NZAF). This means that HIV is an issue for all of us, whether you are gay, bi or straight.

AIDS is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide. Young people, mostly young women, make up nearly half of the new cases of HIV infections worldwide — one every 14 seconds.

Young people are the group most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and we are also the window of hope’ — we’re the ones who can stop the spread and turn the pandemic around.

Are we at risk?
While HIV may seem far away from life here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the disease may have a big impact here in the next few years. The rates of HIV in Papua New Guinea are the same as the rates were in South Africa in 1990 — just before the epidemic. The Pacific region (of which we are a part) is vulnerable, like Africa.

Don’t believe me? Aotearoa New Zealand holds the not-so-glorious title of having some of the highest rates of Chlamydia and teen pregnancy in the developed world… which means we are at risk of HIV. Having an STI can make you ten times more vulnerable to HIV because the existing STI makes it easier for HIV to gain hold in your body. And of course, both the high STI and teen pregnancy rates mean a lot of unprotected sex is goin on.

What is it?
HIV stands for the “Human Immunodeficiency Virus”. HIV infects cells of the immune system, and destroys or impairs their function. When an immune system is deficient it can no longer fight off infection and disease. AIDS stands for “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”. The term AIDS applies to the most advanced stages of HIV infection. For people with AIDS, infections are often severe and sometimes fatal because the immune system is so damaged.

What are the causes of HIV/AIDS?
The HIV virus is transmitted through body fluids such as blood and semen, and occasionally breast milk. HIV is generally transmitted through sexual intercourse, intravenously (through needles) and from mother to child.

While these are the technical ways to get HIV, they are not the only factors that make people vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Here are some underlying causes of HIV transmission and vulnerability.

95 out of every hundred people with HIV live in the developing world. Poverty makes people more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and in turn, the virus leads to an increase in poverty. Poverty also leads people to unsafe practices such as prostitution. Poverty exists in the Pacific and here too.

While poverty is not a major contributor in Aotearoa New Zealand at the present, global pandemics affect poor people more than wealthy due to issues such as access to health care and resources. Regardless of this, whether you are rich or poor, you are still vulnerable to HIV.

Gender inequality
Women are more vulnerable to infection than men as they often don’t have control over if, how and with who they have sex. Teenage girls in some African countries are six times more likely to be infected with HIV than are boys of the same age (UNFPA).

Child Abuse and Rape
Children are often infected with HIV through sexual abuse. Some adult men are seeking young female partners (under 15) in an attempt to avoid HIV infection. Coerced sex including rape, increases risk of cuts to the vagina and anus and therefore of HIV infection.

People are still ignorant about HIV. A recent survey in 17 countries around the world showed that over half the youth questioned couldn’t name any methods to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS (UNFPA). Furthermore, almost half of 15 to 19 year old girls questioned in sub-Saharan Africa, didn’t know that a healthy looking person can have HIV/AIDS (youthandhiv.org).

Mobile populations
The movement of people within and between countries has led to the spread of HIV. In many countries men will work temporarily in the cities, at sea or for the armed forces, contract HIV and then return to their communities and unwittingly spread it.

People traveling on holiday also catch or spread HIV with local populations and other travelers through sex and intravenous drug use. Sex tourism is a major factor in HIV/AIDS spread in countries such as Cambodia.

Myths and Stigma
Inaccurate ideas about HIV/AIDS contribute to unsafe behaviour. Many young women in Africa have caught HIV due to the mistaken belief that infected men can cure’ themselves through sex with a virgin.

The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS often leads to exclusion and violence towards those infected. The fear of stigma means people get tested. Negative attitudes about the use of condoms also increase infection.

A major myth in NZ is that only gay men get HIV. As you can see from the statements above, it is increasingly becoming a heterosexual issue.

Silence is perhaps the biggest killer. HIV/AIDS is associated with sex and drugs and death. These are all things people don’t like to talk about. Silence and inaction has led to the pandemic that the world now faces. Only the breaking of the silence and concerted action will turn it around.


  • Wear a red ribbon to show you care about the issue, especially on World Aids Day - the 1st of December
  • Combat world poverty — join the Make Poverty History Campaign
  • Always. Use. A. Condom… got the message?
  • Break the silence — ask questions and challenge the stereotypes around HIV/AIDS


New Zealand AIDS Foundation
Family Planning Association
The Global Education Centre

This article was originally published in Jet Magazine’s World View column and is published here with their permission. Images courtesy of Save The Children.

Weekend in Nha Trang

Monday, November 21st, 2005

Alex Dalzell, who is in his final year at Otago Medical School, Wellington, has recently returned from a six week placement at a hospital in Qui Nhon, Vietnam. He shares some of his experiences with us.

alexridesBy 4pm I was on a train, meandering slowly the 230km to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a big beach town that is a bit of a tourist destination. Lots of backpackers, restaurants and dive operators. After 3 straight weekends in Qui Nhon I was more than happy to lap up being a tourist.

It’s Monday lunchtime and I have just arrived back in Qui Nhon after a cruisy trip through the rice paddies on the train. Last week was OK - my final week in orthopaedics. Some really short days which started late and finished early, but also some interesting theatre cases.

Christ, I am hyperaware on my bike on the roads here. There are just so many nasty things that motorbikes can do to you. Also I found out what a sword can do when used against a German speaking Vietnamese man while drunk and fighting.

I was going mental by the end of the week waiting for my VISA, getting daily updates that basically said, “We are still waiting for X, we might be able to issue the VISA by tomorrow”. Finally by Friday morning I still hadn’t got it and I had been planning to head down to Nha Trang that night.

I was starting to lose the plot a bit and become a rather dark and brooding young man. At 2.30 we got the call from the immigration office and it was all go. I was racing around, going to the bank and throwing stuff in a bag and catching a cab out the railway station.

By 4pm I was on a train, meandering slowly the 230km to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a big beach town that is a bit of a tourist destination. Lots of backpackers, restaurants and dive operators. After 3 straight weekends in Qui Nhon I was more than happy to lap up being a tourist.

The dive store that I had e-mailed is open late at night and has a bar attached to it. Sounds like a good safe group to go with huh? Over a couple of beers on Friday night I sorted out my trip for the Saturday.

The rain meant the visibility wasn’t stunning - in fact it was about what I would expect on an average dive in the sounds. Enough to see some good coral formations and various tropical fish.

The rest of Saturday was spent sleeping and exploring the city a bit - I got caught in some serious tropical downpours and retreated into a few cafes for coffees on the way to escape the rain. One of the good things about Nha Trang was the different nationalities of food - basically in Qui Nhon I have been eating a lot of noodles and rice with occasional Western food at Barbara’s. I was craving some different flavours and I had some really good pizza one night and some amazing chicken enchiladas. I also had some big juicy prawns that lots of the restaurants have - you can also have them cooked in front of you by vendors on the street.
On Sunday I did a bit of exploring of some lonely planet recommended sights - a big 24 metre tall Buddha on a hill, some really old Cham towers from about 700ad. Cham being a bunch of folk lurking about Vietnam before the ethnic Vietnamese knocked them about a bit. Good to explore and click off a few photos anyway…………

First day in theatre

Friday, October 14th, 2005

I had my first day at the hospital - fairly bureaucratic as expected. But I think that with the schmarmy letter that I just tapped out it should mean that things are fine from here on. Apparently I needed separate letters from the powers that be to allow me admission into the ICU and theatres. But otherwise the ward provides many motorbike victims, they all have x -rays that you just look at and wince.
I have been in theatre all day today. There was this poor farmer who came in after stepping on a mine this morning while widening his paddock for his farm. Bloody American war leftover still active, 30-40 years on. Another guy had a broken femur that we fixed up. In Welly there just weren’t that many broken femurs - over here everyone rides around on their motorbikes and the crashes are a mess. Helmets are discouraged in the cities as they impede the vision at the peripheries. So that’s a good system huh?

Currently the caesarean rate in Province hospital rumoured to be between is between 50 and 70%. Whenever I am in theatre there is a baby entering the world just a couple of metres away - they have two surgical cases going simultaneously in the theatres here. The personal space and touching laws are very different. There is no male-female touching in public - except when holding onto each other on a motorbike - the young couples motorbike a lot. There is plenty of girl on girl and man touch though. It is normal to walk with an arm around a friend when on the street. Also there is much thigh stroking when talking to each other or to emphasise a point. When I come back to NZ I will be drinking beer with ice and touching everyone all the time. I think I will have to have a diamante suit made while I am here to go with this new attitude.

I spent the morning drinking iced coffee again with the doctors and then after a bit of a ward round (read,look at wounds and poke at legs) we just sat around and talked orthopaedics and then some political discussion. Apparently the senior consultants at the hospital have a salary of $70 US dollars a month (one million dong). Not a lot considering the ATM just let me get out 2 million.

It’s my common mistake - people say ” How….are you?” to which I answer “I am fine today thank you. How is your day today?” This gets very confused looks. The Vietnamese don’t care how I am, what they really want to know before names etc. is how old I am. I have also been asked “how odd are you?” I decided not to tell them how odd I am because I need to stay here for another 3 weeks or so.

Yesterday I spent most of the day in theatre doing some skin grafting. There is a burns ward managed by the orthopaedic doctors (it’s a plastics specialty in NZ - no plastics here though). There are a couple of guys with horrific electrical burns which are needing a lot of surgery. One of the guys has had to have the arm that touched the wire amputated and his feet are burnt pretty badly where the current left his body. It’s pretty similar to NZ as far as the jigsaw puzzle of skin grafting goes - shave it off here and fit it across the biggest area of exposed viable flesh.