In the course of the past week the outbreak of methanol poisonings from bootleg liquor has taken a heavy toll: 23 people have died and over 35 remain hospitalized, many of them in critical condition. Several have gone blind. In view of the enormous publicity the methanol crisis has received and the work of local authorities in spreading the message –how is it possible that every day more people are being rushed to hospital in critical condition and why do so many of them come late?
News about the methanol poisonings, the symptoms and the government-imposed ban on spirits has been filling prime-time news reports, papers and radio programmes. Police officers have been making the rounds among homeless people who may not have heard the message and in some towns warnings have been broadcast via loudspeakers several times a day. It would seem almost impossible to be unaware of the danger. Yet every day there has been news of more people being rushed to hospital after consuming tainted alcohol. So how is it possible that so many people are still willing to gamble their lives – and risk going blind –for the sake of a drink. Dr. Karel Nespor, the country’s leading expert on alcohol dependency, says that for some the urge is simply too strong.
“Psychotropic substances induce cravings and having a craving means that these people are strongly attracted to something and their memory, their decision-making skills and their ability to forsee the consequences of their actions all sharply decrease. You can’t expect somebody with an alcohol craving to keep in mind the advice of the health ministry. Their consciousness is narrowed to the alcohol before them and their reasoning definitely suffers.”
Despite the ban on spirits, there are still plenty of opportunities for people desperate to get their hands on liquor. Some buy it on the internet, others in the street and many people still have potentially-lethal unopened spirits at home. No one knows at this point how much contaminated liquor there is about and for how long it may continue to kill. The Institute of Forensic Medicine in Brno is currently working around-the-clock conducting tests on the presence of methanol in blood samples sent in by hospitals from around Moravia. The issue has been given top priority and results are available within 30 minutes –day or night. So far laboratory workers have conducted over 100 tests – not just from samples of people rushed to hospital with severe problems but from those who think they may have drunk suspect alcohol and voluntarily turn up for a blood test. Miroslav Hirt, the head of the institute says it is better to be safe than sorry and points out that people have little chance of detecting the poisoning until it is too late.
“In the early stages of methanol poisoning the symptoms are practically non-existent. The first problems are similar to a hangover, but they tend to appear later. The first serious indication that something is badly wrong is loss of sight when people see what we call a snowstorm – just white specs dancing before their eyes. By that time the poison has done considerable damage. The reason so many people suffer heavy methanol poisoning is that many people drink in order to get drunk. But unlike ethanol methanol does not make you feel drunk. So people think they are in particularly good form and just keep drinking – consuming much more than they would normally do. That is the biggest danger in consuming methanol-tainted liquor.”
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