Gramoxone’s deadly sting and Guyana’s battle against suicide

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By Bibi Khatoon

The fertile lands of Guyana’s coastal plain earned the country the reputation of being the breadbasket of the Caribbean.

To back up their toil on the lands, rice farmers now largely depend on gramoxone (pronounced ‘gram-a-zone’ by locals), which contains paraquat, a herbicide which kills weeds.

But gramoxone has also been killing humans – many of them young Guyanese.

At the turn of the century, leading psychiatrist Dr Frank Beckles studied the suicide phenomenon in Guyana and found that suicide deaths in farming communities, particularly in the Berbice region, were related to the ingestion of gramoxone.

Why?

“It is procured too easily and not stored properly and as a result, innocent ones, in moments of weakness, its right there in their hand reach,” says Dr Bhiro Harry, Guyana’s most respected psychiatrist.

“Sometimes they feel great regret moments after but it has gone down and there is no turning back.”

Dr. Bhiro Harry along with resident Psychiatrist, Dr. Jackie Yen

An estimated 155 tons of paraquat (which is found in other herbicides apart from gramaxone) is imported into Guyana legally, but an unknown amount is thought to be smuggled in from neighbouring countries.

Annually, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the more than one million people who take their own lives globally do so by ingesting a poisoning substance. In Guyana, about 70% of suicide deaths (which averages between 150 to 200 annually), are as a result of the ingestion of toxic chemicals used in the agricultural sector.

“Restricting access to common and highly lethal methods of suicide can reduce both method-specific and all-cause suicide rates,” said Dr Leslie Ramsammy, former health minister of Guyana.

It was under Dr Ramsammy that Guyana’s Parliament approved the formation of the Pesticide and Toxic Chemicals Control Board.

Under the country’s laws governing the use and sale of toxic chemicals, gramoxone was listed under a category for “restricted use.”

It meant that only those with a national identification card could buy the chemical and their names and identification card number are written down by those authorised to sell the chemical.

The Control Board carries out inspections at the 200 vendors who have the authorisation.

“We want persons to know that this is a dangerous chemical,” said Trecia David, Registrar of the Board.

For the past five years, the Board had distributed to farmers specially designed storage cabinets with a double-lock system, so that no one person would be able to access the drug at any time; two persons would always have to be there.

But Dr Harry says even with these controls, gramoxone is still easily accessed.

“It is unfortunate that in Guyana, a school child can walk into the damn place with her school uniform on and by the most lethal drug that you have,” he declared.

In Berbice, where Dr Beckles did his study mentioned at the outset, the Non-Governmental Organisation United Bricklayers says the number of attempts mostly goes unnoticed and this hinders persons from getting much needed health assistance.

In Regions Five and Six –the latter being known as the suicide capital of Guyana, United Bricklayers recorded 93 attempted suicides from January to August of this year.

It recorded an additional sixteen cases in September. 

Founder of the organization, Juanita Burrowes, in an interview with the News Room said this is an increase from last year. She disclosed that the reasons given ranged from domestic abuse, family issues, peer pressure, rape and religious beliefs.

These patients are all receiving treatment and counseling at the NGO located at 25 Charles Place, New Amsterdam, Berbice.

In one case, Burrowes recalled a 13-year-old female who attempted to commit suicide after a relative attempted to rape her.

“She said she felt worthless and she has no self-value and so she attempted to take her life.”

Another case which stood out involved three siblings, ages 15, 17 and 18 who all attempted suicide after their mother was murdered by their father in their presence. The 15-year-old died from her second suicide attempt two years later.

Dr Harry told the News Room that the issue which needs to address immediately is access to poisons and other commonly used methods.

While some persons raise the issue of attempted suicide being a crime under the country’s Criminal Law (Offences) Act with a two years jail sentence as a contributing factor to the high rates of suicide, Dr. Harry believes that many persons are not aware of this law so this may not be so.

“Rarely too, is the law utilized,” he added.

Nevertheless, he called for the law to be revised.

His call was supported by Dr. Jackie Yen, a resident psychiatrist at the Georgetown Hospital who also clarified that factors aside from mental health issues can contribute to suicide.

In Guyana, between 2010–2012, there were 667 reported suicide attempts, resulting in an average of 200 deaths per year, the World Health Organisation reported.

The Government has since launched the suicide hotline and the National Mental Health Action Plan 2015-2020 with the goal of reducing the rate of suicide in countries by 10% by 2020.

If you or anyone you know is feeling depressed and possibly contemplating suicide, please call the Guyana Inter-agency Suicide Helpline which operates 24 hours and is organised by the Guyana Police Force. Telephone -223-0001, 223-0009, 223-0818 Cellphone – 600-7896, 623-4444.

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