This fortnight’s Health Wrap is compiled by Ellice Mol, the Sax Institute’s Digital Communications Manager. Enjoy the Wrap and tweet us via @medicalmedia or @eleechimo if you have any ideas for future issues.
This fortnight revelations about the avoidable infant deaths at Bacchus Marsh Hospital, west of Melbourne, unfolded in the media. Other mothers are now coming forward with concerns after the news of the preventable deaths of seven newborns in 2013 and 2014 were reported in The Age.
The doctor at the centre of the scandal, Surinder Parhar, who was director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the hospital until July, has left the country, according to The Australian. Restrictions had been placed on Dr Parhar’s practising licence in June last year, after regulators began investigating a complaint from a fellow doctor about the death of a baby and near-death of a mother during childbirth, it reported.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary inquiry in WA heard from the former state Health Department director-general Bryant Stokes that the company Serco should not have been given responsibility for sterilising medical equipment, ABC News reported. The inquiry is focusing on the risks posed to patients and staff by ongoing problems with sterilisation services at Perth’s Fiona Stanley Hospital.
Professor Stokes told the inquiry that sterilisation should have been considered a clinical responsibility, instead of outsourcing it to a company that did not have enough experience. The new director-general of Health David Russell-Weisz said:
“There were claims I think in April this year that patients may have had dirty instruments operated on them. That was not substantiated at that time and I can reassure the public that Fiona Stanley Hospital is an excellent hospital.”
And in international news, a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Yemen has been hit by Saudi-led air strikes, The SMH reported.
“The air raids resulted in the destruction of the entire hospital with all that was inside – devices and medical supplies – and the moderate wounding of several people,” Doctor Ali Mughli said.
It’s the second MSF hospital to be hit in a war zone in recent weeks, after the charity’s hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz was bombed by US forces on October 3, killing around 30 people.
Smoking set to kill one billion people this century
This report focused on a pre-conference workshop on smoking-related issues facing disadvantaged groups of people. A range of measures to tackle the high prevalence of smoking in these groups were discussed, including whether tobacco taxes are regressive or actually progressive, the need for more accurate data and how to promote quit smoking messages to particular groups.
Melbourne University’s Professor Alan Lopez told the conference that smoking had been the single greatest health epidemic of our time, set to increase 10-fold by 2100 and to kill one billion people is global action is not taken to addressing high smoking levels in many developing nations, ABC News reported.
This Croakey article, How Australia could help save millions of lives: export tobacco control, detailed Professor Lopez’s warning to governments that tobacco was responsible for two out of three premature deaths among their populations.
The death toll from smoking peaked in Australia in the ’80s, but other countries are only now heading for such high death rates, including the South Pacific where half of the population smokes.
The Sax Institute’s Professor Emily Banks said there was “a lot of policy need, in fact I would say policy hunger” for data specifically about the Australian experience.
“Effective tobacco control should be one of our great exports,” said Professor Banks, in view of the dramatic reductions in Australian smoking rates over recent decades.
Meanwhile, this tribute to the life’s work of Dr Nigel Gray is a must-read for those interested in public health practice, policy and politics.
Marijuana highs and lows
NSW Premier Mike Baird gave the green light for the trial of a new cannabis-derived drug and a secure supply of medicinal cannabis from early 2016 for NSW children who suffer severe epilepsy, The SMH reported.
The trial, a world first, will form part of the state’s $9 million research into medical cannabis that was announced by the Premier last year. The trial comes in the wake of the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use in many overseas jurisdictions, including in Canada and in 23 US states.
Adults with terminal illness and people with nausea induced by chemotherapy will also be part of the NSW research.
Meanwhile, new research published in JAMA Psychiatry found marijuana abuse or dependence in the US has increased from 4.1% in 2001 to 9.5% in 2013, according to the Washington Post. But researchers say it’s unclear what caused the significant increase.
“You can speculate that Americans are increasingly viewing marijuana as a harmless substance… or laws are changing,” said lead study author Deborah Hasin, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. “But we don’t really know until you do good, empirical studies on what factors are really influencing it.”
10-year road map for Indigenous health
A 10-year road map aimed at closing the Indigenous health gap has been launched by Federal Minister for Rural Health Fiona Nash.
The Implementation Plan, which builds on the health plan developed under the previous Labor government, lays out goals in the areas of antenatal health, health checks, immunisation, smoking rates and diabetes.
The 20 specific goals will be used to measure outcomes in Indigenous health, such as increasing the percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0‒4 years who have at least one health check a year from 23% to 69%, and increasing the percentage of youth who have never smoked from 77% to 91% by 2023, Croakey reported.
“The release of this Implementation Plan is an important milestone in Indigenous health and is the result of deep cooperation between the Government and Indigenous stakeholders,” Minister Nash said.
Meanwhile, health researchers have travelled around the country on a mission to find out why Indigenous men are reluctant to talk about their health when it comes to prostate exams and erectile dysfunction. Dr Mick Adams, from Edith Cowan University, found just 30 per cent of Indigenous men surveyed had spoken to their doctor about a prostate test, ABC News reported.
Mr Anthony Lowe, from the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, said Indigenous men were less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer, but when diagnosed, mortality rates were significantly higher than in non-Indigenous Australians. An education tool-kit will now be used by health groups and doctors to help start the discussion.
Climate experiences of rural Australia
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the appointment of a new Chief Scientist, nuclear energy advocate Dr Alan Finkel.
The PM dismissed calls for an end to coal exports and new mines, saying it would long remain the single largest element of the global energy mix, as reported in the Australian Financial Review (paywall).
Bad day for bacon
We found it hard to swallow our morning bacon and egg roll last week, as news emerged that the World Health Organization had classified processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the #cancer agency of WHO, classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1)
— WHO (@WHO) October 26, 2015
This means processed meat such as bacon has been put in the same category as tobacco, based on the strength of the evidence that it is carcinogenic to humans.
The Conversation ran a piece by the chair of the committee which evaluated the evidence, Bernard Stewart, confirming that processed meat causes bowel cancer and is implicated in stomach cancer, but explaining that placing processed meat in the same category as tobacco does not mean the risk is the same.
While both processed meat and tobacco are carcinogenic, Wired reported that smoking increases your relative risk of lung cancer by 2500%, whereas eating 50 g of processed meat daily increases your relative risk of colorectal cancer by just 18% over your lifetime.
However, debate raged in the media about the meaning of the research findings. The Guardian ran the story under a somewhat misleading headline: ‘Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO’, while the findings were reportedly being dismissed by some other media outlets under the phrase “everything causes cancer”.
There was also speculation over the findings in the Washington Post, which reported that the WHO panel’s findings were not unanimous and that raising lethal concerns about food would be controversial.
As we all flocked to the WHO website, the day the news was announced, it crashed.
— NPRFood (@NPRFood) October 26, 2015
The award for “the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle” of the year went to the celebrity chef Paelo Pete Evans, who was named winner of the Australian Skeptics Bent Spoon award, according to the Daily Mail. Earlier this year publisher Pan MacMillian scrapped plans to print Evan’s paleo cook book for babies, after it was slammed by the Public Health Association of Australia.
We also learned that some of Britain’s most violent men who are held in segregation units in high security prisons are set to receive one-on-one training in mindfulness meditation, as reported by The Guardian. The program, which aims to treat depression and regulate prisoners’ emotional responses, will be delivered by the prison psychologist and a prison officer who are trained mindfulness teachers.
And Croakey’s JournalWatch investigated the hygiene of dishcloths, discovering that there are around 10 million bacteria per square inch of a kitchen sponge. To counter this, researchers suggest there is a need for a public education campaign aimed at hygiene in the home.
Public education campaigns were also the focus of an article on Croakey in which Philip Baker reported on a seminar at which marketing and advertising guru Dee Madigan discussed advertising and public health.
The article cited a number of successful public health advertising campaigns including the “Quit” campaign that was successful in tackling tobacco control in the 1980s and the more recent “Dumb Ways to Die” online video promoting railway safety that went viral.
But Baker asked whether campaigns like these could still be effective without restricting the powerful cultural influence of advertising and promotion by food and alcohol companies in Australia.
Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:
Invest in communities, not prisons
After the Deluge – some reflections on more than twenty years of disaster management
How real are claims of poker machine community benefits?
ACCC report on private health insurance – an analysis
Hitting the sweet spot on sugar reduction
The thin veil of advertorial – by Dr Justin Coleman, the Naked Doctor
Health Minister declares health system has “identity crisis”
Selfies and social snaps from the CRANAplus conference