The life expectancy of high-income countries is increasing ­as people are living significantly longer. In 1950, the global life expectancy of the population was only 46, whereas in 2015 it skyrocketed to over 71. However, over the last few decades across the world, people are still dying from preventable deaths.

Here, we take a look at preventable deaths from mismanagement and improper regulations.

Thalidomide

Thalidomide was a prescription drug given as a sedative in the 1950s to treat illnesses like colds, flu, and morning sickness and insomnia in pregnant women. After being tested on animals and revealing no fatal or toxic impacts, it was deemed safe for humans and given to pregnant women. Unlike similar drugs, if thalidomide was overdosed, this would result in a deep sleep rather than death.

Sadly, in 1960 it was found that thalidomide impacted foetal development in unborn babies, causing deformities like missing or shortened limbs, issues with internal organs including the brain, as well as impacted eyesight and hearing. It took five years to realise the side effects as the drug was prescribed under many different names across the world. Upon investigation, it was found that extensive tests on the medicine hadn’t been carried out. The medication was then withdrawn, however tens of thousands of lives were affected.

The thalidomide tragedy has changed the way that medicine is tested forever. Pharmaceutical licensing policies were reviewed as well as the way drugs were tested and marketed. One of the most notable changes was that animal testing couldn’t prove safety in humans, and all drugs prescribed to pregnant women needed explicit evidence that it was safe for foetuses. Over-the-counter access to thalidomide resulted in stricter access to and control of drugs, creating a difference between prescription drugs and drugs for general sale.

This is why, following a small number of reports of blood clots following the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19, the vaccine was momentarily paused in the European Union (EU) while research was carried out to confirm it is safe.  Now, the vaccine has been approved and will be continued to be given across the EU.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a material that was used throughout the 1950s until the 1980s as building insulation. The dangerous effects weren’t known until later, and it was subsequently banned in 1999 after being installed in millions of buildings across the UK.

The use of asbestos in buildings was a public health failure. The material can be fatal as the fibres are too large for the body to break down, so when they’re breathed in, they get lodged in the lungs. This causes a number of health problems with high fatality rates. Breathing in asbestos is directly linked to: 

  • Asbestosis 
  • Lung cancer 
  • Mesothelioma 

Additionally, the effects of asbestos exposure aren’t known until years later. There is a long latency period which means asbestosis and mesothelioma don’t develop until 20 to 30 years later. Because of this, people may be unaware asbestos is present in a building and will continue to affect other people, rather than being removed as soon as someone becomes ill.

Asbestos causes over 5,000 asbestos-related disease deaths each year – people are still dying today from exposure decades ago. Sadly, this material is still prevalent. A recent report found that there are roughly six million tons of asbestos existing in around 1.5 million buildings across the UK. If a duty holder is suspicious of the presence of asbestos or is unsure how safe a building is, they must get an asbestos survey to remove any threat of the material.

Fraudulent medical study

In 2011, a fraudulent medical study by Andrew Wakefield was published claiming the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella was linked with the development of autism in children. For over ten years, this false study was reported in the media, misleading thousands of people to believe vaccines are dangerous. As a result, immunisation rates in the UK dropped. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), measles deaths climbed 50 per cent from 2016 to 2019, claiming around 207,500 lives.

This is sad news after there was a continuous international effort from 2010 to 2016 to prevent outbreaks and deaths. In 2019, the UK lost its measles-free status, three years after the virus was eradicated in the country.

Where possible, regulations are introduced or reviewed after such tragedies to prevent something like this from happening in the future. It’s important to be well informed about dangers and risks, but it is equally important to identify misinformation too.

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