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Health Insight August 2002: Infectious diseases:  battle lines drawn

  While the media is busy frightening the public over legionnaires’ disease the government is quietly making new plans to tackle infectious diseases generally. Professor Sir Liam Donaldson’s consultation paper ‘Getting Ahead of the Curve’, published in January, is designed to tidy up the fragmented system currently protecting the public. From next April, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) will take on many of the responsibilities of the Public Health Laboratory Service, which the report suggests should be disbanded – as well as those of the National Radiological Protection Board, the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, and the National Focus for Chemical Incidents. According to Professor Donaldson’s paper the HPA will ‘act as a source of national expertise’ and ‘provide key services at national, regional and local level in a range of specified areas of health protection’. It will ‘take overall responsibility for the surveillance of infectious diseases, for commissioning and coordinating specialist and reference microbiology laboratories and play a key role in the provision of a service for the prevention and control of infectious disease [and] chemical and radiation hazards in the population’. While the HPA will track the spread of diseases such as legionnaires’, it will also oversee cases such as Ebola fever, fallout from biological terrorist attacks (such as anthrax), CJD, and HIV/AIDS.

While few question the need for reform, experts in health protection are somewhat concerned at the speed at which all this is taking place. The Department of Health says that with the consultation period not yet complete it does not want to get drawn into a premature debate. However, Sir William Stewart – chair of the Microbiology Research Authority – has already been announced as the HPA shadow chair, and he is confident in that. ‘I know there will be a smooth transfer of responsibilities come April next year,’ he said.

Source: Health Service Journal 15th August

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