No booze
  • Bans on alcohol could be a sensible policy to help South Africa through new health crises, a study published on Monday suggests.
  • But only complete prohibition appears to really free up medical resources; partial restrictions don't.
  • Changes in curfew and mobility don't seem to contribute to the reduction in badly hurt people who come through the doors of the hospital.
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A complete prohibition on the sale of alcohol makes for an empty hospital trauma unit, but partial measures such as restricting sales to weekdays or shortening bottle store opening hours do not, a study published on Monday suggests.

Their work shows that "alcohol prohibition correlates with a decrease in health seeking behaviour for injury" say the authors.

"For future pandemics or other situations where a reduction in traffic to health facilities is needed, this type of policy can be considered."

Publication of the study comes as several organisations in the liquor trade have pre-emptively stepped up lobbying efforts against what they fear may be new restrictions from a government concerned about a third wave of coronavirus infections.

See also | Lobbying against alcohol and cigarette bans renewed, as govt looks at ‘response measures’ 

The study, "Trauma trends during COVID-19 alcohol prohibition at a South African regional hospital" was published in the official journal of the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs, known simply as Drug and Alcohol Review.

It analysed data from the Worcester Regional Hospital for 2020, and compared it with 2019, across trauma admissions, trauma operations, and stab wound admissions, "as a proxy for intentional injury". 

The bans and partial bans on alcohol sales in 2020 show a pattern of decreased hospital use, followed by a resurgence when the ban is lifted, even if just in part.

SA banned booze between the end of March and the beginning of June, then had partial restrictions for a month and a half, followed by another month of complete prohibition from mid July. Sales then remained restricted for the rest of the year.

"Each time a complete ban was instituted, there was a significant drop in trauma volume which was lost by allowing alcohol (even partial sales)," wrote the seven authors, all associated with Stellenbosch University or the South African Medical Research Council, which helped fund their work.

Specifically, there was a 59–69% decrease in trauma volume between pre-Covid-19 and the first complete ban period. When alcohol sales were partially rein-stated, trauma volume significantly increased by 83–90% then dropped again by 39–46% with the second alcohol ban." 

The study "demonstrates a clear trend of decreased trauma admissions and operations during complete alcohol prohibition compared to when alcohol sales were allowed or only partially restricted," said the authors – before using a sentence that may find fertile ground among policy makers right now.

"These findings suggest that temporary, complete bans on alcohol sales can be used to decrease health facility traffic during national emergencies."

The results could be, but probably were not, affected by other elements of lockdown rules such as curfew, the authors argue. 

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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