Govt policy inadequate to check alcohol abuse: Health Secy

 New Delhi: Government's response on the issue of dealing with alcohol abuse has been inadequate as it is torn between the need to treat liquor sale as revenue priority and the "strong" case for ban on its use, a senior Health official said here.

 Acknowledging that alcohol abuse leads to major diseases and even death in many cases, Union Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju said, "Health sector interventions are needed and it is something that we didn't get our hands clearly on. This is a lapse."

Speaking at the inauguration of the international symposium on alcoholic liver and pancreatic diseases and cirrhosis organised by Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS), he said, "Alcoholism and the diseases that result from it, is unfortunately an area where we have not made any significant dent.

 "Part of the reason here is that, at a policy level our approach has always been somewhat confused. Government policy in the matter of alcohol has always been torn, where on one hand the sale of alcohol is being regarded as revenue priority, there is equally a very strong case for ban on alcohol."

 He also said that though there were several programmes, centrally funded and implemented in states for disease control, "we do not have any dedicated activity for liver complaints, liver related diseases. This is a gap that needs to be fulfilled."

 Dr Shiv Kumar Sarin, Director ILBS and professor and head of hepatology at ILBS, emphasised on government providing support for patients suffering from hepatitis B and C and liver diseases.

 "Insurance companies don't reimburse if a person gets admitted to a hospital due to liver disease or cancer. Government provides support for HIV patients and provides TB drugs, there is no support for hepatitis B and C and nobody gets reimbursements. We must understand that whether it is diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, the core of all of these is liver," Sarin said.

"Last year we saw 40,000 liver patients and of those that were admitted nearly half of them suffered from alcoholic liver diseases. It is very sad to see that a man has burnt out all his money while drinking and gets admitted in the hospital with no money left. Thus we need to generate awareness on this issue," Sarin said said.

 S C L Das, principal secretary of department of health and family welfare, Delhi Government, said the issue flags some very disturbing socio-cultural trends and needs lot of societal efforts in addition to whatever public efforts can be mounted at local, state and national levels.

 "This is highly class neutral in its affliction. In our interaction with youth we do not see the concept of safe and responsible drinking.

 "Unlike tobacco where the social advocacy has attained a certain degree of momentum, thanks to the efforts of central government and proactive NGOs involved.

 "In this particular area, we hardly have any. In fact most of the advertisements glorify the consumption of alcohol. We should have a really strong programme well targeted to the particular age groups so that the ills of such bad habits can be effectively solved," he said.

 He supported cess on the sale of liquor for funding of behavioural change communication programmes.

 "We would also try and take up with higher education departments both in the state and at the centre so that the students in universities are properly educated on this particular issue."

 Proposing a policy prescription within the Delhi government for higher education institutions, the official said he will formally write to the Centre for their institutions in Delhi to design such well targeted programmes for college students.

 Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission was the chief guest in the programme.

 The Symposium from Nov 15 to Nov 17 is being held in conjunction with National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and National Institute of Health (NIAAA/NIH), USA and has a panel of over a dozen world class specialists talking on this subject in the presence of about 400 national and 200 international delegates.

 Speaking on liver diseases, a participant said about 170 million people around the world are infected with hepatitis C. The standard treatment until recently was interferon injection along with oral drug Ribavirin.

 This regimen is effective in only 40-50 per cent of genotype 1 patients and about 70 per cent of HCV infected patients with genotype 3, rest of the patients do not respond to conventional therapy.

 Interferon injections have many side effects including decreasing blood counts, fever, fatigue, depression etc. About ten percent of the patients are not able to tolerate this therapy and so the treatment has to be discontinued. Experts in this area discussed various treatment options for such patients.