x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hundreds accidentally poisoned each year

Doctors in Abu Dhabi say many are children poisoned by common household or workplace products.

ABU DHABI // Hundreds of people, many of them children, are accidentally poisoned every year, often by common household or workplace products, according to doctors at the Poison and Drug Information Centre (PDIC) in the capital.

The centre has responded by launching a study into the labelling and toxicity of household products sold in the country and will keep its poisoning emergency helpline, which received more than 900 calls last year, open round the clock. "We have products coming in from all over the world," said Dr Yasser Sharif, the head of the medication and medical product safety section at Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD). "The labels are sometimes in different languages and do not include all the relevant information. This is something we need to change."

There are no national labelling standards for these products. "There is demand in any part of the world for this type of service but I think there is more here," Dr Sharif said. The PDIC has already completed a study on over-the-counter cough and cold medications and forwarded its recommendations for changes and improvements to the Ministry of Health. It found that many of the products lacked basic information, such as whether they were unsuitable for children, pregnant women, nursing mothers or patients with pre-existing conditions, and did not carry "keep out of reach of children" warnings.

Dr Sharif said the centre was now conducting a similar study on household products, mainly cleaning agents. It had collected samples of almost 100 branded and unbranded cleaning products from the shelves of both major supermarkets and smaller shops. The PDIC will examine the toxicity of key ingredients of each product to create a referral database to help doctors treat cases of ingestion. It will also develop guidelines for packaging, first-aid advice and child safety measures and forward these to all the relevant bodies, including the municipalities and Ministry of Health.

Dr Sharif said many of the calls received by the centre's helpline were from parents of children who had swallowed a household product. "A parent may contact us if their child has ingested a household cleaning product," he said. "We will ask them questions relating to the child's weight, age, and of course the substance. This allows us to establish how serious the poisoning is." Based on this information the team will guide the parents to their nearest hospital when necessary and alert the hospital. The PDIC will then make follow-up calls until the patient is discharged.

Dr Sharif said that up to 70 per cent of the poisoning cases could be managed over the phone, but that a number of them could be very serious or even fatal. "There have been cases where somebody has not sought help in time," he said. "We have dealt with serious, life-threatening cases. An allergic reaction to an insect bite can be deadly, as can a child ingesting cleaning products." The helpline, which was set up in 2005 and operates between 7am and 3pm daily, is manned by trained pharmacists and one physician, a clinical toxicologist. It offers advice on treatment of medication overdoses, exposure to chemical spills or industrial chemicals, poisoning by household products, alcohol or drug overdoses, and bites and stings.

It also receives calls from health professionals seeking advice on how to manage accidental overdoses and attempted suicides, as well as chemical poisoning. As well as dealing with individuals, the hotline takes calls relating to industrial exposure, mainly because of the volume of industry in the UAE. "We deal with occupational exposure, and part of that is industry and construction," Dr Sharif explained. "We have refineries, pipelines, dust, glues and a lot of different chemicals. All of the labour community are exposed to these, and so are members of the public who may live near a building site. These are all potential hazards."

In 2008, the centre's helpline received 931 phone calls, 351 from members of the public. PDIC records show that patients managed by the centre's staff spend less time in hospital, on average, freeing up emergency beds. Dr Joseph Manna, head of the emergency department at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said poisoning cases were common. "We do see cases of poisonings, all the time," he said. "The most common is children ingesting cleaning products, or taking medication meant for adults. A lot of medicines are not in childproof bottles so children grab them."

He said poisoning was also common in adults and recalled a recent case of a man who accidentally overdosed on Panadol to cure a headache. "He kept taking it until he became sick and had to come to the hospital. It is not uncommon. This is why the helpline is so helpful. It is an enormous help to emergency room physicians - not how to treat the patient but to avoid cases coming in which do not need any hospital treatment."

Dr Abdulla Hassen, manager of the HAAD's pharmacy medicine department, which the PDIC operates under, said the poisoning hotline was an "asset" to the emirate's health services. "It provides a great reassurance to healthcare professionals who may not have the knowledge of how to manage a poisoning," he said. "But also to members of the public, especially parents, who know there is a dedicated centre to call for help and education."

The toll-free hotline number is 800424. @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae