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150 People Died After Drinking Tainted Alcohol: Can One Survive After Drinking Tainted Hooch?

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By Brooks Robinson and Sukant Khurana, Ph.D.

In a tragic and disturbing development, over 150 people in the Indian state of West Bengal have died last week from drinking tainted alcohol. While some are still undergoing treatment it is clear that the death toll and overall causalities are bound to rise. As dreadful as this incident is, perhaps even worse is the fact that these types of deaths caused by poisonous alcohol are rather a commonplace in India. Over the past several years, hundreds more similar deaths have been reported begging the question “What is causing these deaths?”

The reasons this bad alcohol is continuing to be made, sold, and consumed is a large societal issue and utter failure of government of India to have an effective ethanol policy. Most of current governmental efforts, whether at the central or at the various state levels, are equivalent of putting lipstick on the pig as they only cure the symptom and not the disease. Recent efforts to make involvement in sale and production of illicit poisonous liquor punishable by death, even though an increase in deterrence, is failing to look at the root cause of alcohol abuse. It will likely take months or years to sort out the societal issues and likely a strong public participation to force legislators to make alcohol policy a real concern and not just an electoral issue. Hoping for quick change in social and economic landscape will be daydreaming, however, if people know what this “hooch” is doing to their bodies the causalities can be reduced. If people can recognize the symptoms and recognize the fact that help is needed hopefully many lives will be saved from now on.

So what happens when hooch becomes toxic and deadly? Hooch is made by distilling cane sugar. This process needs to be tightly controlled because if the distillation temperature rises too high, methyl alcohol is formed instead of simple evaporation and condensation of ethyl alcohol, the regular edible alcohol. Methyl alcohol or methanol is extremely toxic and can cause death in amounts as small as 30ml. When methanol enters the human body, it initially causes similar inebriation symptoms as the ethanol-containing safe alcoholic beverages. In addition, one may become nauseous, experience vomiting, abdominal pain, and central nervous system depression. This central nervous system can manifest as lowered body temperature, heart rate, or breathing rate. If you experience these symptoms it is best to seek professional heath care assistance. At this point methanol poisoning is very treatable.

After the initial inebriation, there is a period of 12 to 24 hours where it may seem like nothing is happening. Internally, the human body is metabolizing the methanol into formaldehyde and eventually formic acid. The increased acidity in the blood and other body tissues due to formic acid has many consequences. The mildest of the symptom is temporary blindness that if not intervened becomes permanent blindness. In absence of timely intervention, eventually, respiratory failure and death can occur. Mortality rates strongly correlate to the length and severity of this increased level of acidity. Patients who survive may suffer from permanent neurological disorders and may resemble Parkinson’s patients.

If methanol poisoning is identified early on, much before the high levels of acid are accumulated, then the metabolism of methanol can be inhibited through the administration of ethanol. The same internal machinery that breaks down methanol will be used to break down the ethanol instead and the more toxic methanol will be excreted through the kidneys. If high levels of formic acid are already present in blood, health care professionals will need to purify the blood through hemodialysis or other methods.

In summary, if you experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, a decrease in your heart rate or breathing, or blurriness vision or loss of vision after drinking hooch, you may have methanol poisoning. This is a potentially life threatening condition, but is treatable. Recognizing these symptoms and seek help to save your life.

Brooks Robinson, in collaboration with Dr. Khurana works on genetic, epigentic and behavioral mechanisms of learning, memory and addiction at the University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Tx. Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist, author and social activist of Indian origin who is working on issues of addiction, learning, memory and neurological disorders. With assistance from Brooks Robinson Dr. Khurana is working on a book on alcohol issues of India. Khurana and Robinson’s alcohol related popular news and policy writings can be found at:

https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana2/ and https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana/alcoholism-writing-of-sukant

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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