December 5, 1997


Francescutti continues crusade for safety


Dr. Louis Francescutti

Amidst the flurry of discussion following the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, something vitally important was missing, says Dr. Louis Francescutti. People talked endlessly about the intrusiveness of the media, the need for spiritual community, and the future of the English monarchy.

But according to the outspoken injury prevention advocate, one crucial question never got asked, a question that, for him, sticks out like a sore thumb: why weren't Diana and her companion wearing seat belts?

"The only guy that survived the crash was wearing a seat belt," said Francescutti last Friday at a seminar on current issues in public health sponsored by the Department of Public Health Sciences. "The car they were in was a tank-if they were all wearing their seat belts, they would have survived. Yet nobody talked about putting funds towards trying to prevent these things from occurring, so at an opportune time like that, where progress could have been made, the issue was totally ignored."

While the thrust of Francescutti's talk may not have been altogether new, it is one the professor of health sciences takes great pains to repeat whenever he gets the chance-in a weekly segment on CBC radio, in newspaper editorials, and at academic conferences. And he makes no bones about it: injury should be treated as a disease, one meriting the same attention, and the same funding, as cancer and heart disease. The only reason injury is not taken as seriously as it deserves, he says, despite the fact that it's the leading cause of death for those under 44, is a matter of politics.

"Injuries affect primarily younger people who don't have too much say in the political process. Who decides where research dollars go? Usually men in their 50s and 60s, and what do they die from? Cancer and heart disease."

Some of the brass in health care, however, are beginning to listen to Francescutti's message. Last October, Alberta Health appointed him chair of a 10-member advisory board on injury and also provided $300,000 for the new Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, set to open next April. The centre will assume responsibility for injuries in much the same way the Alberta Cancer Board does for cancer cases.

Albertans in particular have good reason to sound the alarm, says Francescutti. Our province has the highest death rate due to injury outside of the territories. The leading cause of injury-related death in Alberta is suicide, accounting for more victims than even automobile collisions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the region with the best injury record is the Northern Lights Regional Health Authority in the northern part of the province. Francescutti attributes this success to the big petroleum companies located there, such as Syncrude and Suncor, which have been stressing safety among their employees for 25 years. Now the entire community is starting to benefit from company policy.

"The reason (corporations) do it is that it affects their bottom line-God bless free enterprise! If we could have some of that gung-ho spirit spill over into the other regional health authorities, we might be able to beat Sweden (the leader in injury prevention), so that five years from now people around the world will be able to use Alberta as the bench mark." Francescutti added that the health-care system should be willing to take the kinds of spending risks that are taken for granted in the corporate world.

The place to begin changing attitudes about injury, however, is with younger generations, he says. Towards that end, he plans to recruit "gangs" in high schools to promote safety as cool among smaller children.

"Wouldn't it be great to have the Syncrude Prevention Dudes, and all these dudes and dudettes do is drive around in the summer looking for small kids doing stupid things. I think teenagers are ready to take up a cause, and my job is to train future leaders."

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