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Health Insight May 1999
Women at work: a risky business

The Trades Union Council (TUC) has published a report, 'A Woman's Work is Never Safe', which suggests there is a male bias in health and safety legislation. Apparently women workers suffer more repetitive injuries, back pain, eyestrain and skin diseases than men. Almost 12 million women could be risking their health because of work problems, such as stress, heavy lifting, contact with dangerous chemicals, and eyestrain caused by staring at a VDU.

Part of the reason for the gender discrepancies is that women tend to be concentrated in professions that cause certain types of health hazards; for example, hairdressers have a high level of skin problems because of the chemicals involved. Women are now moving into traditionally male areas of work where standards of safety have been devised according to male models. A spokeswoman for the TUC said, 'We want equal attention to be given to the needs of women workers'. In response a spokeswoman from the Health & Safety Executive said, 'If the TUC asks us to look at gender and health and safety, I am sure we will do so'.

Source: BBC Online

New website for kidney research fund

The National Kidney Research Fund is Britain's foremost renal charity and relies entirely on voluntary support to continue its work. Now it is launching a redesigned website which will contain regular updates on new research into a range of kidney conditions, as well as profiling what life is like for those suffering with a kidney disease. All the latest national and regional news from the charity will also be featured on the new website at www.nkrf.org.uk

Details of breakthrough research into glomerulonephritis will be included on the website. This is the kidney disease responsible for 20 per cent of dialysis cases in young adults. One of the molecules involved has been identified by Hammersmith Hospital in London; research has been so promising that it is hoped clinical trials in patients can soon begin.

Source: Press release (National Kidney Research Fund)

The tiniest pacemaker

A three-week-old baby girl, weighing just over 4lb, has been fitted with a heart pacemaker, following surgery to repair a hole in her heart and other problems. Katie Burke, one of twins, was born with a complex heart condition, diagnosed while she was still in the womb. At the Diana Princess of Wales Children's Hospital in Birmingham, a tiny pacemaker was inserted under Katie's left armpit, as there was not enough room in her chest. A fine wire, which will unravel as she grows, was passed through the baby's veins leading to her heart. The consultant who performed the operation said the insertion was made possible thanks to the development of a wire fine enough to pass through the baby's tiny veins.

Source: Guardian 3rd April

The contraceptive pill: always controversial

Three-and-a-half years ago the DoH gave women a scare with its advice on the third-generation oral contraceptive pill. One consequence was that the abortion rate increased by 9 per cent. Doctors were advised to switch women to older, second-generation pills because of a slightly increased risk of blood clots in the leg with the newer drugs. Now the recommendation has been reversed by the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CSM), which has suggested that the gestodene/desogestrel pill can be offered as first-line treatment, provided the slightly increased risk of deep-vein thrombosis is explained to women. From June this year, third-generation pills will contain new package inserts, stating the risks. Although welcomed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a spokesperson said the CSM's advice in 1995 'was a disaster that should never have happened'.

However, views on the contraceptive pill vary. An eminent cancer statistician has provoked anger among family planning groups by questioning its safety. Professor Klim McPherson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said, 'Confidence in the pill may be seriously misplaced because very young women who take the pill for years have not been fully studied'. He argues that hormones in a woman's body, between the age of her first period and first child, seem to play a role in her vulnerability to breast cancer. If his fears prove correct the proportion of women under 50 developing breast cancer could rise from 1 in 50 to 1 in 18.

Clinical trials on 23 men using an easy-to-use contraceptive pill and hormone patch have proved successful. A three-month course of the pill used in combination with the hormone patch reduces the number of active sperm to zero. The method has still to be perfected but researchers at Manchester University believe this work will lead to a more user-acceptable method of male contraception.

Daily Telegraph 8, 20 April;
Press release (DoH);
BBC Online

Are you microwaving your brain?

Almost half a billion people worldwide use mobile phones. To date there has been no consistent evidence suggesting risk to health, but there is continuing public concern about the possibility. Hence the DoH's Radiation Protection Research Programme has funded a short study of the effect of mobile phone frequencies on human memory and reaction times. The work, carried out at Bristol University, has found that mobile phones do not lead to cancer and there is no noticeable effect on memory loss – indeed the study found that the microwave emissions from the mobile phones had the unexpected effect of decreasing the time subjects took to react to words flashed on to a screen. Although this seems like good news, if microwave emissions can influence reactions times as they pass through the skull, what else might they be doing? It appears that the best protection to the microwave radiation field is the 'hands-free' set which cuts the field inside the head by more than 94 per cent.

Daily Telegraph 8 April;
New Scientist 10 April;
Press release (DoH)

Topics in International Health:
A core resource for health training and disease control programmes

The Wellcome Trust and CAB International are pleased to announce that there are now eight titles in the Topics in International Health (TIH) series of interactive training CD-ROMs:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases
  • Malaria
  • Diarrhoeal Diseases
  • Schistosomiasis
  • Leprosy
  • Sickle Cell Disease
  • Trachoma

The CDs are aimed at healthcare professionals, researchers, lecturers and medical students in both the developed and developing world. They focus on training the user in the epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment of disease and tackle a wide range of topics in depth, using interactive tutorials, a comprehensive image database, and an extensive glossary of medical and scientific terms. Discs on HIV/AIDS, Nutrition and Leishmaniasis will be published in December 1999. Further details can be found at www.wellcome.ac.uk, or by contacting Liz Woolley, CAB International, Wallingford, Oxon OX10 8DE; tel: +44 1491 832111; fax: +44 1491 833508; e-mail l.woolley@cabi.org

In brief

New/improved hospitals
A private finance initiative has been given the go ahead which, according to the DoH, will 'transform' the existing Hereford County Hospital into one of the finest hospitals in the West Midlands and mid-Wales, serving some 200,000 people. The total value of the project is £470 million. Meanwhile, a new community hospital has been formally opened in Beverley by Frank Dobson who was also on hand to open a new general practice surgery in Aldbrough.

Sources: Press releases (DoH)

The government has set performance indicators to be used to assess the UK's health authorities. The indicators will cover no less than 41 aspects of healthcare delivery, grouped into six categories: health improvement, fair access to treatment, effective delivery of care, patient and carer experience, and outcomes and efficiency. Health minister John Denham said, 'For the first time the public will know how good the quality of care has been...this will be a powerful tool enabling those who provide service to the NHS to work towards the highest possible standards'. Performance indicators on clinical care will be published later this year.

Source: BBC Online

Figures for February just published show that, in England, the government has been able to fulfil its pledge to cut waiting lists to pre-election levels one month earlier than planned. There were 1,200,00 people waiting for operations, the lowest figure since December 1996. The government now has to meet its target of a further 100,000 reduction during the next 12 months. Reducing out-patient waiting times is also seen as a priority.

Source: HSJ 1st April

The first annual national survey of NHS patients in England has been published. The survey involved questionnaires sent to 100,000 people, selected at random, during October–December last year. Over 80 per cent of respondents had seen their GP in the last year and most were satisfied with their services. Dissatisfaction was more common amongst people aged under 45. Other matters dealt with in the survey included: practice nurses, out-of-hours care, and hospital referrals. (For details: contact Duncan Innes, NHS Executive, Quarry House, Quarry Hill, Leeds.)

Sources: Press releases (DoH)

Frank Dobson told the annual UNISON trade union health conference that in recent years the NHS had relied too much on short-term contracts as a result of the internal market and uncertainties about funding. Now, however, he said, 'I'm calling time on short-term contracts. They can still be used to provide cover for staff on maternity leave, long-term sickness absences, long training courses and things like that – but that's it!'

Source: Press release (DoH)

The NHS Confederation is preparing for its annual conference – 26–28th May – to be held at the Harrogate International Centre. The theme will be 'How successfully are we implementing the government's "New NHS"?' Details from the Confederation's website – www.nhsconfed.net

Source: NHS Confederation conference advertising

A circular from public health minister Tessa Jowell has instructed health authorities and primary care groups to develop services to help smokers give up the habit. Copies of the circular are available tap.ccta.gov.uk

Source: Press release (DoH)

The first vaccine to combat bloodsucking gut worms has been developed by a team at the Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh. Intestinal hookworms are parasites of grazing livestock and man. Drugs, costing £1 billion each year, are used to control disease but resistance to these is increasing. Using a technique with potential for all such worms, sheep were immunised with proteins extracted from parasite intestinal cells so that their blood made antibodies. Plans are now under discussion to produce the vaccine commercially.

Source: Daily Telegraph 8 April

Painless blood tests may be on the way. A robot has been developed at Imperial College in London which prods the arm with a probe and locates the vein under the skin. The position of the veins is then displayed on a screen. The robot's operator chooses an area and instructs the robot to insert the needle and withdraw the blood. The technique is said to be painless and will be particularly useful in taking blood samples from young children and obese people, whose veins are difficult to locate.

Source: Daily Telegraph 15 April

A clearer picture of the incidence of infectious intestinal disease (IDD) in England is emerging following a DoH study costing approximately £2.5 million. The first set of results shows there are far more cases than are actually reported to the Public Health Laboratory Service. It is estimated that out of 9.4 million cases of IID each year, only about 1.5 million patients go to their GP and of these, only a fraction are reported to the PHLS. Welcoming the first results of the study Professor Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, said, 'Now we have a clear indication of the size of the problem and this will help us to tackle it'.

Source: Press release (DoH)

Medical soap operas on British television attract large audiences and can make a big impact on viewers. A study showed that after an episode of the popular programme Casualty, in which a suicide was portrayed, overdose presentations increased by 17 per cent over the following weekend. Conversely such programmes might be educational – people who had seen an episode showing a patient developing potentially fatal liver damage after a paracetamol overdose were found to be twice as likely to know of the specific dangers of the drug than those who had not.

Source: BBC Online

The first set of clinical performance indicators for Wales show wide variation in the three areas chosen: death rates after heart attack, death rates after hip fracture, and discharge rates for patients with hip fracture. Welsh health minister John Owen Jones said the indicators were tools to enable doctors to identify potential problems at an early stage and, if necessary, act on them. He said, 'They are not a replacement for professional self-regulation but they raise questions about clinical practice that doctors and NHS managers will need to investigate.

Source: BMJ 17 April

A new HIV/AIDS expert group has been set up to develop targets aimed at reducing mother-to-baby transmission of HIV. Announcing the membership of the strategy steering group, public health minister Tessa Jowell said, 'About 50 HIV-infected babies are born each year to mothers who are unaware of their own HIV-positive status. We now know that there are steps which can be taken to reduce the risk of HIV being passed from mother to baby and it is vital that we do everything we can to protect these unborn babies'.

Source: Press release (DoH)

The Health Survey for England is an annual survey undertaken to improve information on the state of the population's health, risk factors for diseases and the precursors of ill-health. The 1997 survey included a total of 8582 adults who were asked detailed questions about their health and lifestyle. Respondents were weighed and measured and had their blood pressure taken. Key findings include figures on obesity – 17 per cent of men and almost 20 per cent of women were classified as obese. Proportions of men and women smoking cigarettes were unchanged (men 29 per cent; women 27 per cent). There was a slight increase in women drinking more than the recommended units per week (from 13 per cent to 16 per cent), and 36 per cent of young men and 14 per cent of young women reported drinking more than twice the daily amount advised. Blood pressure has lowered since 1993 and on average 75 per cent of people assessed their own health as 'good' or 'very good'.

Source: BBC Online

A team from leading London hospitals has studied a possible link between asthma and obesity. Researchers found that the fatter the adult, the greater chance that they will suffer from asthma. This is more true for women than men, obese women are almost twice as likely to suffer from asthma as those of normal weight. Another interesting finding is that a small baby is more likely to have asthma by the age of 26. It may be that their generally impaired foetal growth includes poor airways.

Source: Daily Telegraph 27 April

Back to the May 1999 Health Insight index

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