In the Middle East occupational and environmental medicine is still very much in its infancy. In many countries there is no specialist medical training available for this sector, which despite its obvious significance is not getting the attention it merits. Lebanon is a case in point. While the laws there prescribe the provision of in-house medical care for enterprises, there is little indication of this in practice. Accordingly occupational medicine plays a very minor role. With a view to changing this state of affairs, Heidelberg Alumni International, the University's former students' network, has instituted a continuing-education programme for Lebanese doctors.
The idea for the project came from the numerous Heidelberg medical graduates from the Lebanon. The initiative is funded by the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Academic Exchange Service. The first stage took place in the summer of last year in the form of seminars in Heidelberg, Tübingen and Ulm attended by some 20 participants. The second leg followed in May of this year in the Lebanon itself with the first German-Lebanese conference on occupational and environmental medicine and accident prevention in Byblos and Beirut.
Speakers at the conference were Heidelberg's occupational medicine expert Dr. Michael C. Dietz of the Hospital Clinic for Occupational and Social Medicine, Dr. Sibylle Hildenbrand of the University of Tübingen and Dr. Lothar W. Weber of the University of Ulm. The conference attracted not only a large number of scientists but also representatives of the Lebanese Ministry of Labour. The Rector of the University of Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Siebke, gladly agreed to participate at the opening of the conference. "This event," he said, "is a fine example of the development of life-long learning so important in the medical sector in particular."
Noise damage, pulmonary disorders from asbestos and lots more
Subjects on the agenda included health impairment from noise, hazards caused by handling neurotoxic chemicals and pulmonary disorders from asbestos. Michael C. Dietz gave a rundown on the history of occupational and environmental medicine in Germany: "Today," he said, "qualified knowledge about occupational medicine is part and parcel of the instrumentarium required by anyone active in the medical sector." Sibylle Hildenbrand explained the significance of threshold values in monitoring the handling of hazardous substances at the workplace.
Such apparently mundane subjects as the correct use of protective gloves were also discussed. "Tell the people in charge that it makes good economic sense to make these relatively minor investments to protect their employees," Lothar W. Weber exhorted his Lebanese colleagues. "The economic aspect is indeed very important," concurred Prof. Iman Nuwayhid, specialist in occupational medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB). "Keeping their staff healthy is good for the companies. So we must learn the language of the entrepreneurs and hammer home the significance of physical harm in dollars and cents."
The German experts also inspected a transformer works and the country's biggest cable factory, thus gaining an on-the-spot impression of working conditions there. They made suggestions for enhancing safety in the handling of chemicals and equipment, thus adding a scientific contribution to the export of German machinery to this area.
Lebanese appreciation of this German initiative was expressed by Prof. Mustafa Khogali of the AUB: "The more scientists and doctors talk about these topics, the better. That's why this conference is such a good start." Organiser and Heidelberg alumnus Dr. Hikmat Rizk (Lebanese American University) was very happy with the outcome of the conference. "With events like this," the aid, "we can build up a long-term awareness of the significance of occupational medicine for this region." One important educational "spin-off" effect of the seminar has already become apparent. In Byblos and Beirut it assembled Lebanese occupational and environmental medicine experts who knew nothing of each other's existence before, thus laying the foundations for a future network. For this reason alone, the visit by the delegates from Baden-Württembeg's universities was eminently worthwhile.