This is fascinating not only because it highlights how susceptible people can be to suggestion, but also for what it says about the pharmaceutical industry.
Sri Lanka can’t afford to purchase the antidote for these poisonings, because it is priced for the American market (about $3,000 a dose) where it is used to counteract the effects of digoxin.
Sri Lanka has been suffering from a growing epidemic of suicide attempts.
It is fuelled by the ready availability of poison from the fruit of a common roadside plant.
Michael Eddleston is a British doctor who has spent much of the past ten years in Sri Lanka.
It is becoming the suicide capital of the world. The poison of choice is the seed of the Yellow Oleander tree.
The Yellow Oleander is an ornamental plant often used for hedging that grows all over the island.
It has yellow trumpet-like flowers and a fruit the size of a conker. Inside is a single large seed. One is enough to kill you.
Although the plant grows in large parts of the tropics, it’s only in Sri Lanka that it has become associated with suicide – and only fairly recently, with an incident 25 years ago.
Two girls in the northern part of the island took the seed and died. As a result of the newspaper publicity it entered the public consciousness.
“The next year,” says Michael Eddleston, “there were 23 cases; the year after that 46, then 126, and ever since then it has continued to rise year on year as it spreads across the island.
“It completely overwhelms the health service. Often young people use it as a way of getting back at people. They get scolded and they take a yellow oleander seed.
“I remember one girl said her mother wanted her to get up and do the shopping. She said no, her mother scolded her and she took a Yellow Oleander seed.
“I remember a Muslim girl – her mother said she couldn’t watch TV during Ramadan, so she took a seed in front of her mother.
“We had no ambulance to get her in time and we had no good treatments. She died.”