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The recent post on whether Christmas is bad for you inspired further questions on the evidence behind holiday season myths. There is a common misconception that poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima for the botanists) are poisonous. Grandparents tell stories to new parents that they must be vigilant to ensure that children don’t ingest the plant’s leaves.

But what is the evidence?

A study published in 1996 in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine sought to provide an answer. The authors evaluated 849,575 plant exposures reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Poinsettia exposures accounted for 22,793 cases, or nearly 3%, of which nearly all occurred in December and January. Not surprisingly, 94% of poinsettia exposures were in children.

But were they poisonous? No. None were fatal. In fact, only 4% of patients required treatment in a health care facility and fewer than 7% developed toxicity. Most reactions were mild - children that ingested leaves may experience diarrhea and vomiting or have an allergic reaction to the skin.

Poinsettias are not toxic. They don’t stalk family homes waiting for the opportune time to poison children with their attractive red leaves. Children that accidentally ingest poinsettia leaves rarely require treatment. In fact, the real concern is that they may be a choking hazard.

Well what are the real hazards around Christmas time? The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia website highlights the harms that children need to worry about. An unsuspecting culprit took the top spot: alcohol. Alcohol is a serious hazard in children that can lead to major health problems if ingested by children, even in small quantities. Be wary of leaving empty glasses around the house that could break and be ingested by children.

Similar to alcohol if you are in a cold enough climate, windshield washer fluid and antifreeze are serious hazards. The sweet tasting liquid that looks like Kool-Aid can lead to blindness, seizures, heart-rhythm changes and even death if ingested.

Other quintessential botanical Christmas symbols that are poisonous: holly. A handful of berries from the Illex opaca shrub can produce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and drowsiness in children. The toxicity of kiss causing mistletoe is not supported by the evidence with most cases having a similar outcome as with poinsettia exposure. But with all substances, beware of large amounts.

Be on the look out for disc batteries (coin shaped circular ones) that can be a choking hazard if swallowed. If they become stuck in the esophagus or stomach, they can begin to leak their caustic contents and cause severe burns.

Irrespective of the hazard, most children swallow these objects when they are left unattended. When enjoying the holiday season this year, keep an eye on the curious children putting objects in their mouth and dispel the old urban myths that lack evidence. Happy Holidays.

Emergency contraception: emotion, evidence and bubble gum

Peter Gill
Last edited 18th December 2011

Earlier this year, the FDA recommended that emergency contraception, or Plan B, should be available without prescription to girls under 17 as it is currently available by prescription only to this age group. In an unprecedented move, the US Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius vetoed the FDA's recommendation to make Plan B available without prescription to all women of childbearing age in the US. Mr. Obama said the secretary felt a 10- or 11-year-old should not be able to buy emergency contraception “alongside bubble gum or batteries."

What is Plan B or emergency contraception? Plan B is a pill that consists of the hormone progestin that works by preventing an egg from being fertilised. It must be used within 120 hours after unprotected sex, is safe and effective with few side effects and none dangerous.

Unlike some misconceptions, the availability of emergency contraception dose not change rates of sexual activity or increase the frequency of unprotected sex among adolescents.

Unintended pregnancies are an emotional and controversial issue, invoking deep-rooted religious, political and ideological beliefs. The US has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancies with nearly half of all pregnancies unintended. In particular, adolescent birth rates in the US are much higher than rates in other developed countries.

Side stepping the issue of induced abortion, what is the effect of unintended pregnancy on women? A recent Lancet editorial discussed the results of a comprehensive review into the mental health outcomes of women after having an induced abortion. The key study finding was that having an unwanted pregnancy leads to an increased risk of mental health problems, not having an induced abortion.

The US should be leading the battle to reduce unintended pregnancies. Indeed the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “encourages abstinence plus comprehensive sexuality education as the best way to help prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” Further, they support the availability of emergency contraception, or Plan B, for adolescents.

Given that only 20-25% of health care providers discuss emergency contraception with adolescents, the restriction of Plan B to prescription only to adolescents under 17 seems a major barrier to access.

What is the likelihood that a 15-year-old who had unprotected sex is going to get a prescription for Plan B? She will be able to purchase acetominophen (i.e. Tylenol or Paracetamol) without a prescription, a medication that can potentially cause fatal liver damage and lead to liver failure if used inappropriately, yet she cannot purchase Plan B to prevent an unintended pregnancy.

Rather than rely on evidence, emotion wins. But the real loser are adolescents under 17 who may face life-long mental health problems. When emotion wins, we all lose.

A recent study in BMJ Open used the newly developed WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) to find out how many current studies recruiting children for drug studies collect pharmacokinetic data.

The findings of the study were shocking: only one-quarter of 1,081 trials studying medicines in children collect pharmacokinetic information. Further, only one-third of the medicines identified as a priority by the European Medicines Agency actually collected data (at the time of the study in 2008).

Well what is pharmacokinetic data and why is it important? Pharmacokinetics refers to the study of external substances after they are ingested in the human body. For example, when you swallow a pill, pharmacokinetics explains how long it takes your body to absorb the medication, how long it takes your body to break it down and how long the drug works for.

When children are given medication, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and patients assume that drugs would not be available for children unless they have been rigorously tested and understood. In fact, the truth is quite different. Off-label (outside the product license) and unlicensed (without a license for use in children) prescription rates in children range from 11-80%. There are significant gaps and inadequacies in research conducted in children.

Children are not just small adults and have different safety and efficacy profiles of medications than adults due to differences in physiology, disease pathophysiology, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Even adverse drug reactions occur more frequently in children with off-label prescribed drugs.

This vital problem needs to be addressed at multiple levels and the WHO has taken a lead role. The ICTRP will help to improve awareness and make it easier to access accurate, up-to-date, understandable information about clinical trials in children.

The WHO has also launched the ‘Make medicines child size’ campaign in 2007. Hopefully this will address the lack of child studies worldwide as only 38% of trials in children are conducted outside of North America. Clearly studies conducted on children in the US or UK cannot be directly applied to children in Sub-Saharan Africa or India.

Outside of the WHO, the StaR Child Health initiative was founded to improve the design, conduct, and reporting of paediatric research.

A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down is not enough. More is needed to understand drugs in children.

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