Written by Dr Boitumelo Kgarebe NIOH

The National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) hosted a specialised scientific meeting on 23 -24 April 2018, on Alcohol Toxicology. The 1st Annual African Meeting of Alcohol Toxicology with the theme Notable impressions and investigations, focused on various topics concerned with alcohol consumption, pharmacology, detection, analysis and interpretation of alcohol results as well as the medical, legal and occupational implications of alcohol levels in a person.

The meeting, a first of its kind to be held in South Africa, was a joint initiative of the Analytical Services Department at the NIOH, the Division of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, University of the Witwatersrand, Alcohol Breathalysers Pty Ltd and the African Academy of Sciences.

In her welcome remarks, Dr Sophia Kisting, Executive Director of the NIOH, recognised that alcohol abuse is a major issue within societies world-wide and is the cause of a vast number of social and economic problems. She quoted World Health Organization (WHO) statistics on the contribution of alcohol to approximately 6% of deaths worldwide, along with a large number of disabilities and morbidities (WHO 2014). With particular reference to South Africa, she noted that South Africa was ranked among the top 20 ethanol-consuming nations in the world (WHO 2014), with data showing that in 2015, the ethanol consumption (per litre), per capita, was 11.5 litres, up from 11 litres in 2014 (BusinessTech 2016). She went on to further state that the large amount of ethanol consumed resulted in ethanol being the third largest contributor to deaths in South Africa with approximately 6.4% of total deaths in 2012 (World Health Organization 2014). This figure, she said, represented the percentage of deaths that ethanol was known to contribute to. Along with the contribution to death, it has been estimated that 10 - 12% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is spent on costs directly associated with ethanol abuse (Matzopoulos and Corrigall 2014).

The main sponsor of the event was the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), a pan-African Academy of all Sciences that aims to drive sustainable development in Africa through science, technology and innovation (STI). It has a tripartite mandate of pursuing excellence by recognizing leading scholars and achievers; providing advisory and think-tank functions for shaping the continent’s strategies and policies; and implementing key STI programs that impact on developmental challenges through its agenda setting and funding platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA).

In his opening statement, The Executive Director of the AAS, Professor Nelson Torto, thanked the organisers, in particular Dr Boitumelo Kgarebe, Head of Analytical Services at NIOH, who is also the AAS Vice-President representing Southern Africa, for approaching the Academy for funding of the event. He underscored the importance of meetings such as this that use science-based evidence in addressing local issues, and invited wider institutional collaboration with the Academy especially under its flag-ship AESA programme. He informed the audience that AESA had been created by AAS and the New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD Agency), and endorsed by the African Union in 2015 as a strategic partner to specifically respond to the critically felt needs of the continent to address its R&D challenges.

The keynote speaker, Mr James Wigmore, an internationally recognised expert on alcohol toxicology from Canada, shared his experiences with regards to the improved understanding of the complexities, shortcomings and expertise involved in the analysis (and interpretation thereof) of alcohol (ethanol) in biological systems. Sharing their experiences in this forum were 70 practitioners from enforcement, testing, medical, legal, occupational health and safety, and other allied fields who identified gaps in the determination of alcohol in biological systems, and provided evidence-based information on alcohol consumption, pharmacology, detection and interpretation of alcohol results.

Other speakers were from Academia, Department of Justice (National Prosecuting Agency), National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA), the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTC), Forensic Pathology Services, South African Society of Occupational Medicine (SASOM), NIOH, Alcohol Breathalysers, and other local equipment vendors.In closing the meeting, Prof Jeanine Vellema, Chief Specialist at the Gauteng (South) Department of Health (DoH) Forensic Pathology Service, provided insights into the statistics of alcohol related-deaths of victims presenting at the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services (JFPS) and Medico-legal Laboratory.

The overall message that resonated with all the delegates was the need to promote behavioural attitudes related to alcohol.