The Ugandan government is proposing a law that makes it criminal for individuals found spitting in public, a habit that is deemed to be dangerous to public health.
The proposed Public Health (Amendment) Bill, 2021, if passed by Parliament, would impose a 12-month jail term or 150 currency points (Shs3m) penalty or both for the culprits.
The Bill was tabled before Parliament last month and is being scrutinized by the Health Committee.
The government contends that spitting comes with advanced health consequences that include the spread of diseases.
The proposal seeks to amend Section 27 (n) of the Public Health Act that prohibits spitting in public places or in public vehicles, except into receptacles provided for the purpose.
The amendment suggests that where a medical officer confirms that a person is suffering from an infectious disease, which in order to guard against its spread can only be treated or nursed in a hospital, they may cause the person to either be moved to a hospital or to any other suitable place.
However, medical practitioners under their umbrella body, the Uganda Medical Association (UMA), have protested the clause, advancing arguments that spitting is a biological function, which is a response to the disease in someone’s body.
“We cannot prohibit spitting, or any other form of disposal of infectious material unless we provide people with alternatives. Hence the government needs to provide sanitary and hygiene facilities in public spaces,” Dr. Edith Nakku-Joloba, the vice president of UMA, told MPs yesterday.
The move is meant to enable government carries out mass vaccination drives against life-threatening epidemics and or pandemics such as Covid-19.
However, UMA says although they support vaccination, the approach government wants to adopt is an infringement on human rights.
“We are totally against forced vaccination, it contravenes the rights of human beings. From studies done before, people are vaccinated by choice, it is a medical procedure and one has to consent to it,” Dr. Nakku said.
When it comes to children, the association says consent must be first sought from the parents.
Dr. Elisa Rutahigwa, the Rukungiri Municipality MP, who chaired the meeting, wondered if this would not give too much liberty to the public while putting the lives of other citizens at risk.
“Some of these vaccines are very important and have to be administered, what do you do in a case where a parent refuses to have their child vaccinated against the killer diseases?” He asked.
However, Dr. Richard Idro, a senior paediatric neurologist and lecturer at Makerere University, who is also the former UMA president, said the Ministry of Health wants to punish citizens after failing at their mandate.
“We must not force people to be vaccinated. All we have to do is educate the people. If mothers are educated, they will adhere. Ugandans do hear, all we have to do is educate them through the use of media, places of worship and social media,” Dr Idro said.
The association wants the government to do away with fines and jail terms for those who are caught on the wrong side of the Public Health law.
Dr. Nakku said the currency points could be reduced to 50 (Shs1m) and jail terms can instead be substituted with community service.
“Imprisonment does not help, community service is quite compassionate and results in a long-term change, together with health education,” she said.
The Bill is to amend the Public Health Act, enacted in 1935, to repeal the obsolete provisions including revising the fines for offenses committed under the Act and repeal provisions on venereal diseases.