Scientific health education
Myths about health and healing are increasingly proving to be detrimental
Education is the key to development of any society. It opens up one's mind, widens the horizon of thinking and gives an insight into the causes and effects of happenings around. Health education is all the more important because good health is most dear to all. It affects our day-to-day working capacities and contribution in development. But health is not always decided by one individual. It is dependent on several factors around us. These are socio-economic, environmental in addition to personal habits developed over time. Therefore, it is important to inculcate knowledge about health in a scientific manner right from the beginning of schooling. Children need to be taught about basic things, like doing exercise, washing hands, throwing waste in the dustbin, segregating non-biodegradable waste like plastic from biodegradable ones etc. With time these practices become the habit of children, which helps in maintaining hygiene that is so important for good health in life. As children grow, they should be given knowledge of more complex issues concerning health, like spread of disease, the impact of socio-economic and environmental causes affecting our health and the means to prevent disease. They should be imparted knowledge on how healthcare has developed over the years, rejecting myths to the present day scientific analysis of health issues.
In ancient times, when knowledge of happenings around did not have scientific basis, people would depend on faith healers for the remedies of their diseases. Gradually as man learnt to go to the root of the reasoning of the events, he found several clues to the causation of illness based on contemporary knowledge. Thus developed what is now called a traditional system of medicine in different parts of the world. Modern medicine took knowledge from various forms of systems prevalent and developed them scientifically that made us wiser about the pathophysiology of the disease, which formed the basis of remedies accordingly. This process broke many myths about health issues prevalent in the society.
But even today there are several myths about diseases, their causes and remedies. Several people still believe epilepsy to be caused by shadow of the 'witch'. So the treatment is based on getting rid of the 'witch'. Some believe that the smell of a dirty shoe would cure the patient of seizure. Likewise there are others who believe Syphilis, now known as sexually transmitted disease, to be caused by taking milk with Jalebi.
Many a disease is self-limiting disorders. They require supportive treatment. For example Mumps, a viral illness generally gets cured in a week or so. It needs supportive treatment to reduce the pain and other troubleshooting symptoms. But the patients of Mumps invariably visit the Ghumar (the earthen pot maker) in the belief that with a few mantras from his mouth the disease will get cured. The same is true for chickenpox and other such illnesses. Similarly, the Bell's Palsy (paralysis of one side of the face) is cured by such healers through various methods. One such method is focusing sunlight on the neck of the patient using a convex lens. This causes burn on the skin. As the burn heals the facial palsy also recovers. Such beliefs are very much entrenched in people's minds.
It is, therefore, important that health education based on scientific basis be imparted from the very childhood so that children do not fall prey to such false beliefs as they grow. Belief in these myths becomes a serious matter when the patients visit such faith healers even in case of serious illnesses like cancer and others. In such situations the disease which could have been cured or checked or made less painful becomes aggressive and irreparable harm is done to the patient.
But unfortunately, outdated unscientific ideas like the utility of cow urine for human health are being highlighted despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence in its favour. There is also move to appoint astrologers in the hospitals to give opinion on issues of medical treatment. There is also report of some ministers of the Gujarat government having participated in the conference of 'Tantriks' and felicitated them. There are also reports that some centers are being run to produce customised babies by reciting mantras and shlokas at the time of mating by the couples. This practice is said to produce healthy babies of the choice of your colour, gender, and height etc.
Health is a scientific subject which has evolved with time and is in consonance with Darwin's theory of evolution. Therefore, the truthfulness of the statement that plastic surgery in India in the ancient times was so much advanced that we could put an elephant's head on the human body or that we had knowledge of cloning in ancient times because Karna was not born out of the womb are not based on scientific evidence. These are meant to be spoken only to perpetuate myths and obscurantism.
It is time that the medical community and scientific people take up the challenge to remove myths about the medical science and the disease. State should play a positive role in this. People claiming false remedies must be brought to book. It is unfortunate that a lot of advertisements are seen in the print and electronic media, with some making big claims of treating extremely serious diseases. These are doing immense harm to the society.
There should be a National Health Education Mission for both rural and urban areas. The subject should be analysed scientifically by the experts and included in school curriculum. Scientifically trained staff with monitoring and accountability must be prepared to impart the knowledge at door steps.
(Dr Arun Mitra is senior Vice President Indian Doctors for Peace and Development. Views expressed are strictly personal)