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Health Insight April 2002: In brief

  Five air ambulance charities in England are to receive a £2.2 million funding boost to help with their operational costs. In addition, the NHS will meet the cost of approximately £150,000 for staffing every air ambulance in England with a paramedic crew. Announcing the funding, health minister Hazel Blears said she hoped the money would help support the running costs of local air ambulance charities until they had funding from other public and corporate sources.
Source: Press release (DoH)

Fraud officers from three police forces launched dawn raids on the homes and offices of hundreds of drug firm staff as part of an investigation into a suspected plot to defraud the NHS of £400 million. The searches focused on six companies involved in the manufacture and sale of generic drugs to pharmacists. The pharmacists are later reimbursed by the NHS. The serious fraud office said it was investigating prices charged by suppliers for prescribed penicillin-based antibiotics and warfarin sodium, a blood-thinning drug used to treat heart problems.
Source: Guardian 11th April

Existing guidelines on treating patients with diseases such as Creutzfelt-Jakob disease (CJD) do not cover dental health in any detail. Professor Stephen Porter of the Eastman Dental Institute at the University of London thinks ‘important modifications’ should be made to the current infection control procedures, and calls for more research specifically to be done on infection via dental treatment. So far there have been no proven cases of CJD developing as a result of dental treatment. However, Professor Porter says the possibility ‘cannot be excluded’.
Source: Press release (Royal Society of Medicine)

The government has confirmed that it has built up Britain’s supplies of smallpox vaccine to guard the population against a possible germ warfare attack. The move is one of a package of measures introduced because of the increased fear of terrorism after September 11th. Although admitting to buying the additional doses of the vaccine the government refused, however, to confirm newspaper reports that £32 million had been spent on 30 million doses from a British pharmaceutical company. This amount would be sufficient to concentrate vaccination on the centres of infection.
Source: The Times 13th April

Health minister Jacqui Smith has announced the additional Trusts that will provide digital hearing aids as part of a modernised hearing aid service. This follows government investment of £20 million in digital hearing aids during 2002–2003 and gives the details of 27 adult sites and 30 paediatric audiology sites, all of which will begin providing digital hearing aids as part of a modernised hearing service in the next 12 months.
Source: Press release (DoH)

Leading test-tube clinics in the UK have defended their multimillion-pound profits, after they were warned that they must start paying towards the annual £60 million NHS bill for IVF twins and triplets. The clinics say that they charge realistic sums to meet public demand and reject the implication from Ruth Deech, former chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, that their methods are reckless. The IVF doctors see Ms Deech’s comments as an attack on a private sector industry that is meeting huge demand from desperate couples who feel let down by the NHS.
Source: The Times 13th April

The British Medical Journal, with the help of its doctor readership, has put together a list of 174 conditions which it feels could be reclassified as ‘non-diseases. These they feel are best described as ‘a human process or problem that some have defined as a medical condition but where people may have better outcomes if the problem or process was not defined in that way. Ageing came at the top of the list, followed by work, boredom and bags under the eyes. A significant minority (13%) also wanted chronic fatigue syndrome/ME on the list. The BMJ makes it clear, however, that it is not suggesting that people with ‘non-diseases’ do not need help, and admits their suffering ‘may be much greater than those with widely recognised diseases’.

Seven per cent of those taking part in the BMJ survey think Gulf War syndrome should be on the non-disease list. However, a study of 14,000 serviceman, carried out by the University of Manchester, concluded that Gulf War veterans are more likely to become ill and suffer more severe symptoms than other servicemen and women. The findings have been forwarded to the Ministry of Defence as the veterans have demanded a public inquiry into the health effects of serving in the Gulf War.
Source: Guardian 10th April, BBC Online

Babies who put on too much weight during the first four months of their lives could face a lifetime of obesity, according to the largest-ever study into infant weight gain. The results of the US study has so concerned British experts that a similar project is to be launched in the UK. ‘I am sure GPs are not aware of this at all: the emphasis is on looking for children who are not growing enough,’ said Dr Mary Rudolph from the Leeds Community NHS Trust. Their recent study into childhood obesity found that one in three 11-year-old girls was overweight and one in ten was clinically obese. Consultant paediatrician Dr Penny Gibson, an adviser on childhood obesity, said, ‘These findings are very important but only as a way of helping us target who is more likely to become obese and why, but at the moment no one is recommending putting babies on a diet.’
Source: Observer 7th April

A pioneering form of heart surgery has had an encouraging trial at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. The so-called ‘beating heart surgery’ involves doctors carrying out coronary artery bypass grafts while the heart is still beating. It showed, for the first time, that the technique reduces the risk of chest infections by 12%, irregular fast heart beats by 25%, the need for red-blood transfusion by 33%, and the need for patients to stay in hospital for more than one week by 13%. Professor Gianni Angelini, who carried out the research, estimated 50% of bypass operations could be carried out using the beating heart technique – meaning a saving of up to £30 million for the NHS.
Source: BBC Online

A medical investigation discovered that 80% of herbal creams used by patients of Birmingham Children’s Hospital contained powerful steroids never normally prescribed to children. Doctors said that the drugs could lead to irreversible thinning of the skin as well as affecting the child’s growth and immune system. No warnings were found on the packets, which were available over-the-counter and by mail order. The discovery has prompted calls for tighter regulation of alternative medicines, which do not have to undergo the same stringent tests and licensing as conventional medicines. ‘We don’t have much control over herbal medicines,’ said the Medicines Control Agency. ‘We are calling for greater powers to regulate what is allowed to be sold.’
Source: The Times 20th April

A survey of 14,000 secondary school across England, Scotland and Wales is the latest in a series of studies indicating that young people are drinking worrying amounts of alcohol. The report, carried out by Communities that Care, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that binge drinking is a significant problem among teenagers. Up to a quarter of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds admitted to having ‘downed’ at least five alcoholic drinks in a single session; the figure rose to half of all fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. The authors say such widespread misuse of alcohol amongst under-age drinkers ‘cannot safely be ignored by parents or policy makers’. They add that drinking amongst young teenagers is linked to anti-social behaviour and use of other drugs.
Source: BBC Online

The government ordered the immediate removal from sale last month of nearly fifty leading brands of insect killer, fearing that they may cause cancer and nervous disorders. The sprays or strips include fly, moth, wasp and cockroach killers that contain the chemical dichlorvos, also known as DDVP. To sell, advertise or supply the products is now illegal. Ministers acted after experts on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) said they could not rule out a risk of skin, liver and breast cancer from dichlorvos. Environmental campaigners are concerned that it has taken more than a decade for the government to act; DDVP was classified as a possible carcinogen in the early 1990s. Sandra Bell, spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, said, ‘This decision must cast doubt on the safety of scores of other household products’.
Source: The Times 20th April

Doctors in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol have developed an experimental treatment which, they suspect, has regenerated the brains of five patients with Parkinson’s disease. The treatment involves putting a drug called GDNF into a mechanical pump, two of which feed it to the most damaged parts of the brain. Nik Patel, consultant neurosurgeon at the hospital, said that although the new treatment had worked well on five people it was too few to know for sure whether it is an effective therapy.
Source: BBC Online

Women are to continue getting emergency contraception over-the-counter from pharmacists. The ruling found against the challenge from the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and upheld the government’s current position. This means that the supply and use of all forms of contraception, including emergency contraception, will continue unchanged.
Source: Press release (DoH)

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