In the news: The response to the Chan Zuckerberg plan to end disease, a stronger gutkha ban and more

This week’s wrap of health news across India.

Chan Zuckerberg Science: Is it feasible and is it a good idea?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan announced last week that they were pledging $3 billion of their fortune over the next ten years "to cure, prevent or manage all disease within our children's lifetime." Yes, that is not a particular disease but all disease.

The announcement has been met with mixed reactions. Some have called it a great and bold initiative and welcomed any contribution towards better health for people around the world. Most have pointed out that $3 billion is a pittance compared to the amount of money being spent on many public and private health programmes around the world, none of which have such audacious ambition. For example, the annual health budget of the National Institutes of Health in the United States that goes towards research if disease, treatment and development of vaccines is about 11 times that of the Chan Zuckerberg commitment for ten years at $32 billion.

The Chan Zuckerberg plan revolves around funding fundamental breakthroughs in medicine to target the four types of disease that cause the most death in the world – heart disease, cancer, neurological diseases and infectious diseases.

While some wonder whether the plan stems from hubris or one-upmanship of other billionaire philanthropists, The UK’s Telegraph points out that is all disease is cured in the next 80 years, it will put a huge strain on resources. “Without any deaths to offset all the births, we would have to make room on earth for an extra 208,400 people a day, or 76,066,000 a year – and that’s before those babies grow old enough to reproduce themselves,” said writer Jemima Lewis, making the point that we should aim to eliminate diseases that kills people much too young, or much too painfully but we need the diseases of old age.

Supreme Court reinforces gutkha ban

The Supreme Court on Friday came down heavily on companies circumventing the gutkha ban by selling pan masala and tobacco in separate pouches by reiterating the prohibition on sale of food products having tobacco and nicotine as its ingredients. The court directed authorities like the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to endure the end of sales of all forms of chewable tobacco and nicotine.

A plea in the Supreme Court by senior advocate Gopal Subramaniam, who is amicus curiae in a batch of petitions related to the gutkha ban, pointed out that chewing tobacco manufacturers contended that the regulations restrained them only from selling gutkha, which is raw betel nut mixed with tobacco. So, instead various companies had started selling pan masala and tobacco in separate but often conjoined sachets, instead of the ready mixes.

India’s new family planning mission

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has announced a new scheme to promote family planning called Mission Parivar Vikas. The mission will be targeted at 145 districts in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Assam – states that account for 44% of the country’s population.

India is the second most populous country after China and is set to have the highest population by 2022. India’s population, and therefore health, goal is to redice the Total Fertility Rate or the average number of children per woman to 2.1 by 2025. The Total Fertility Rate in the 145 districts covered t be covered in the new plan is more than or equal to 3.

The announcement of Mission Parivar Vikas comes just days after a study in the Lancet ranked India at 143 out of 188 countries in terms of progress in health. Family planning, as an effort to control population, is one of the United Nation’s health goals under the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals.

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Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.