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Few in V.I. Use New Poison Hotline, Rotarians Told

June 6, 2008 — The Florida Poison Information Center in Jacksonville is coordinating with the V.I. Department of Health to handle poison-related telephone calls in the territory, but too few Virgin Islanders are calling, Phyllis Bell-Davis and Paige Pruitt of the center told Rotary of St. Croix members Thursday.
Bell-Davis and Pruitt's appearance at Gertrude's Restaurant was part of a territory-wide media blitz aimed at spreading the word — and the telephone number 1-800-222-1222 — on poison control. Speaking to area health care providers, community groups, newspapers, television and radio stations, Bell-Davis and Pruitt are casting as wide a net as they can in their effort to encourage residents to use the toll-free hotline.
"We serve 42 counties in north Florida and the Virgin Islands and we received more than 50,000 calls last year," Bell-Davis said. "But only about 300 of that total came from the Virgin Islands. We are not getting the calls we should expect."
Since 2000, the American Association of Poison Control Centers and the U.S. Center for Disease Control have been working to create a complete nationwide poison control center system. The goal is to be able to call the same number from anywhere and reach a center coordinated with your local emergency medical system.
The V.I. collaboration with Florida is funded with a three-year CDC grant of $90,000 and is in its second year.
Anyone who calls the poison control number will be connected with an operator in Jacksonville who will provide free, anonymous assistance. If the situation is urgent, the center will alert either the St. Croix or the St. Thomas Emergency Medical Service to send out an ambulance.
The toll-free hotline can help get a poisoning patient appropriate treatment faster, with a trained professional telling the patient what to expect, whether or not to drink water or milk, and if need be, to call emergency services. But there are many situations where you might think you should to get to the hospital right away but don't necessarily need to, said Pruitt, a registered nurse with expertise in treating poisoning.
"Take household bleach," she said. "If a child or adult gets a swallow of this, it will sting the throat going down. But we would not expect serious injury from this and would likely recommend the patient drink a lot of water and keep in close touch, making sure there is no severe swelling or worse symptoms."
By calling the Poison Information Center first, patients can potentially save large amounts of money for unnecessary medical bills, she said. At the same time, patients get faster, more appropriate treatment. And every caller who does not have to go to the hospital helps to take the strain off the territory's overburdened medical system.
"With that 800 number we are able to treat 85 percent of callers at home," Bell-Davis said. "If that 85 percent went to the emergency room, that is a lot of unnecessary cost to the patient and the hospital."
Patients with some severe symptoms should always go straight to the emergency room, however, said Pruitt.
"If there is loss of consciousness, shortness of breath or trouble breathing or chest pain, you should go in immediately," she said.
The center also tracks volume and type of call, alerting the CDC, the V.I. Health Department and other appropriate bodies if a suspicious pattern emerges. An epidemic or some form of public contamination, including a terrorist action, could trigger that response.
"Any information you give when you call is confidential," Bell-Davis said. "We collect statistical data only."
Poison prevention education is important too.
"Ninety-three percent of poisonings to children under the age of six happen in their own home," Pruitt said. "If we can prevent a poisoning to child it can save personal injury to that child, loss of income, stress fear, all those things that occur when a parent comes in with a child."
Keeping medications and household cleaners up high where children can't reach is the simplest, most effective poison prevention strategy, she said.
You can find out more from the V.I. Department of Health or by calling the Poison Information Center and asking for the Education Department. The number to call is 1-800-222-1222.
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