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World Health Report: Mental Health Experts See Increase In 'Millennium Madness'

Washington, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The approach of the Year 2000 not only has computer experts worried. A report from London says doctors and psychologists are preparing for an increase in mental health problems tied to the coming of the new millennium. That's the top story in this edition of the RFE/RL Health Report.

Psychologists warn of "millennium madness"

London -- Last Monday's editions of the London newspaper "The Independent" reported that doctors and mental health professionals in Britain and Europe expect an increase in patients suffering from stress, panic attacks and depression tied to the coming of the year 2000. Mental health experts already say the number of such cases has doubled in the past six months.

The condition, according to the news report, is called "Pre-Millennial Tension." Doctors expect the condition to become more pronounced as December 31 nears, bringing with it the danger of more suicides and family distress.

Experts cited by the Independent blame the rise in mental health problems on fear of technological chaos that might be caused by the so-called millennium bug and religious associations of the year 2000 with an apocalyptic event. The millennium bug, also known as the Y2K problem, is a technical issue. Many computer experts believe that computer programs, particularly older programs, will start failing when the new year begins because the programs are not prepared to recognize the start of a new century.

Many national governments and private industries have been spending fortunes to upgrade their computer systems in the hope of preventing any service interruptions. Mental health experts are trying to deal with the social aspects of this problem.

The London report says that for Fundamentalist Christians in particular, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is a firmly entrenched belief. Members of extreme cults are said to be the most at risk, but secular people are also suffering severe depression and anxiety because of the warnings of possible technological collapse.

The Independent says the syndrome is confined mostly to the Christian world. For Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other faiths who observe different calendars, the year 2000 has no significance. The problems are acute in countries with mass associations of strict religious groups, such as the United States and countries subject to rapid social change, such as Russia and Eastern European nations.

Communication influences cancer patients' decisions

Toronto - Cancer specialists say that, while science and research may save a breast cancer patient's life, a patient's lifeline during treatment is communication.

This view was stressed repeatedly at conference in Toronto last week that was sponsored by the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Initiative. A number of speakers said patients have strong needs for information and supportive, communicative relationships with healthcare providers. Both of these elements can significantly affect the emotional health of patients and possibly the health outcomes of their treatments

Jane Graydon, a University of Toronto nursing professor, found in her study that "women want very specific information, and healthcare professionals must be prepared to provide it throughout treatment." She studied 33 patients undergoing radiotherapy after breast conservation surgery. Graydon said the patients had high information requirements. She said their most important needs "were related to the disease itself, how it acts in the body, the chance of recurrence, treatment, coping with side-effects and impact on life in the next few weeks."

Moving from patient to physician education, University of Western Ontario, London researcher Moira Stewart, a specialist in the study of patient-centered care, gave high marks to doctors who participated in an intensive educational program to improve communication with breast cancer patients.

No support for moderate drinking improving health

Edinburgh -- The British Medical Journal carries a report in its current edition which says that a large study from Scotland gives no support to the theory that moderate alcohol intake has any protective effect on health. Researchers related alcohol consumption to mortality in a large population of employed men in Scotland over a period of 21 years. They measured a wide range of socioeconomic and other confounding variables, enabling them to adjust for confounders more fully than in previous studies of alcohol consumption.

The researchers found that the risk of death from all causes was similar for non-drinkers and men drinking up to 14 units a week, but was higher for men drinking over 22 units a week, even after adjustment. The researchers found no apparent relation between alcohol consumption and risk of death from coronary heart disease but a strong relation with risk of death from stroke, with men drinking 35 or more units a week having twice the risk of the non-drinkers.

WHO Director-General urges new thinking on debt relief

Geneva -- World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Bruntland earlier this month praised the decision of the Group of Seven industrial democracies and Russia to introduce a wide-ranging package of debt relief to developing countries. She said that while 90 percent of the disease burden is in developing countries, these countries have access to only 10 percent of the resources going to health."

Speaking at a conference outside Washington last week, Dr. Bruntland said international and multi-national financial institutions need a set of new and additional criteria when they consider the issues of new loans as well as debt relief. She said that the debt relief conditions based on economic indicators alone will not tell the full story of how a country is advancing or regressing".

Bruntland said health is a key to reversing the downward spiral linking poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. She said that investing wisely in health can tell far more about a country's potential than the narrow return from tourism or road building. By focussing on the main childhood diseases, she said poor countries will make gains in increased life expectancy. Bruntland said that even modest improvements in health can lead to powerful boosts to development.