A recent UN report about hazardous medical waste, such as glass, blades, needles and the like, much of it contaminated with blood and other bodily fluids, highlights a serious risk that people in African countries face.
The UN report concentrates on the problems of how to dispose of this kind of waste safely and even mentions the fact that some rich countries find it more convenient to dump their waste in developing countries, where regulations may be less well enforced, if there are regulations.
The possibility of those exposed to the waste suffering needlestick injuries and the effects of low levels of radiation should not be ignored, either by the countries where the waste is being dumped or by the countries doing the dumping. Illegal shipping and dumping of waste and its subsequent inappropriate storage and disposal should not be tolerated; and it is unacceptable to pass the blame to those in poor countries who profit from these practices.
The World Health Organization is quoted as saying “millions of cases of hepatitis and tens of thousands of HIV infections could be prevented each year if syringe needles were disposed of safely instead of getting reused without sterilization”. Medical waste can be rendered safe before being shipped to countries where the recipients may not know the dangers and are unlikely to handle it appropriately.
But the article highlights another problem that people in African countries will notice: medical waste generated here is not always disposed of safely, either. While taking a walk through many hospitals and other health facilities, you may notice the odd syringe, needle, scalpel blade or other instrument on the grass, in hedges or in dumped piles. Most health facilities simply don’t have the capacity to dispose of waste safely, as a look at Service Provision Assessment Reports for various African countries will show.
Members of the public, as well as health personnel, are at risk from medical waste disposed of unsafely. Both adults and children run the risk of contracting bacterial infections, hepatitis, even HIV. The risks may seem small, but the number of times that people come into contact with contaminated waste could be very large, which translates into a far greater danger.
Not all contaminated waste comes from health facilities, either. Many people use syringes, blades and other items in their own homes. Many unregistered vendors selling pharmaceutical products give injections. Cosmetic facilities, such as salons and even roadside manicurists and pedicurists can also have contaminated waste that they need to dispose of.
The number of people who come into contact with potentially hazardous waste could be very high indeed.