Blog posts

Group A streptococcal infections in the UK

There is currently considerable media coverage and some public anxiety in the UK about Group A streptococcal (GAS) infections. Journalists who write about cases of infectious diseases need to understand the principles of the Poisson distribution. Events such as infections can sometimes cluster in time or space due to chance, and not because there is an underlying cause behind the cluster of cases.

Some journalists and doctors are stating that the cases of Group A streptococcal infections we are currently seeing in the UK are from lower levels of immunity because of Covid-19 control measures over the last 2.5 years. This is not necessarily the case and needs further investigation. The UK has experienced large outbreaks of Group A streptococcal infections in the past. For example, the UK had a large outbreak of Group A streptococcal infections between September 2015 and April 2016 (the largest since 1969), resulting in PHE issuing an alert.

The current cluster of Group A streptococcal infections won’t be the last we will see in the UK. Outbreaks of this and other infections will continue to occur. What is important is that our public health agencies and the NHS have the capacity to investigate and manage any outbreaks.

Developing a shared definition of self-driven healthcare

Witing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, myself, Austen El-Osta and Chris Rowe set out a vision for building sustainable, self-driven healthcare spanning primary care, secondary care and the wider health and social care system has been set out by medical innovators. Self-driven healthcare (SDH) is an umbrella term introduced by Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency, to conceptualise aspects of healthcare delivery that can support people in becoming more engaged in managing their own health and wellbeing, rather than being passive receivers of healthcare.

In our paper, we describe an SDH ecosystem that supports individuals to take more ownership of their health and wellbeing and in recording their own data (e.g. weight, blood pressure) using a phone app, tablet, computer or Bluetooth device. This self-generated data would then be uploaded onto a secure online SDH portal which holds all their health records, including those generated in the wider healthcare system.

Individuals would also enter other data such as what medication they had taken that day, the food they had eaten or the exercise they had done. They may even have a range of other devices that automatically record and upload useful information, such as environmental data about local air quality that day. A personalised dashboard would automatically present the user with their ‘digital twin’ and the portal may also be enabled to routinely offered insights and actionable advice, including microlearning and behaviour change interventions and a holistic picture of the person’s overall health and wellbeing status.

The SDH approach must create better access to all sections of the community rather than just wealthier and more technically literate individuals. It is also crucial that the SDH movement does not exacerbate inequalities due to the digital divide. How SDH is adopted in the future is very important, especially when it is applied to help enhance the consumer health system by trying to link it effectively with state-funded NHS health and social care systems. It will be important to determine if these online environments will be provided by expanding the NHS App, for example, or by commercial companies.

Supporting healthcare workers with work related stress and burnout

A recent article in the British Medical Journal discusses work-related stress and burnout in healthcare workers. These are important problems in the NHS workforce in the UK a well as amongst healthcare workers in other countries. Addressing the underlying cause, which may relate to factors such as workplace demand, relationships, and support is necessary for sustained recovery and full engagement with work.

Healthcare workers may experience guilt or shame due to stigma, preventing them from seeking help if they experience work related mental illness. Time off work and workplace changes to control the triggers may be necessary to allow recovery and sustainable return to work.

Healthcare workers experiencing work related stress can seek support from colleagues, their own GP, occupational health, and specialised services for healthcare workers such as local mental health and wellbeing hubs and NHS Practitioner Health.

Diagnosis and management of Monkeypox in primary care

Our recent article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine  discuses the diagnosis and management of Monkeypox in UK primary care settings but is also relevant to primary care clinicians working in other countries outside West and Central Africa that have  seen Monkeypox cases in 2022.

Since its discovery in 1958 in monkeys, the Monkeypox virus has been rarely found outside west and central Africa until the current global outbreak. The first human case of the virus was in an infant from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1970; the infection has since spread to other regions, primarily in Africa. The first case of the current outbreak was confirmed on 6 May 2022, in the UK and was linked to travel to Nigeria. Two subsequent UK cases were detected a week later; however, neither affected individuals reported contact with the primary case in the UK nor travel to Africa.

On 23 July 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the current Monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, as the number of cases increased rapidly around the world. As of 9 September 2022, 57,016 cases have been confirmed in 96 non-endemic regions, with the UK having one of the highest number of cases worldwide (3484 cases).

As we understand more about the current outbreak, particularly the community transmission of the virus, primary care clinicians may be the first point of healthcare access. Therefore, awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease and current management strategies is crucial to providing optimal care and advice to patients.

Why shingles vaccine is important for people in their 70s

Much of the discussion about vaccination in the UK is on Covid-19 and flu vaccines or vaccines for children. But there are also other important vaccines for adults – such as for shingles – where there is scope to increase uptake and improve health outcomes for older people and the immunocompromised.

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of latent varicella zoster virus (VZV); sometimes decades after the primary chickenpox infection. For some people – particularly the elderly and the immunocompromised – shingles can be a very unpleasant illness with significant complications.

In the UK, two vaccines are licensed for shingles:

– Zostavax which contains live, attenuated virus and which is given as a single dose.

– Shingrix which is a recombinant vaccine and which his given in two doses.

The main target group for shingles vaccination in the UK is people aged 70-79 years. Most people in this group will receive the Zostavax vaccine. People in this age group who are immunocompromised should receive the Shingrix vaccine. The rationale for vaccinating the elderly is because complication rates are much higher in this group. For example, hospital admission rates for shingles (zoster) are around 20 times higher in people aged 75 and over than those aged 15-59.

When people turn 70, they should receive an invitation for shingles vaccination from their GP. If they didn’t take up the offer of a vaccination at that time, they can still get a shingles vaccination until they are 79. Once they turn 80, you will no longer be eligible for shingles vaccination. Shingles is a disease that has many complications in the elderly. It can result in considerable pain and discomfort and reduce your mobility. In more severe cases, it may require hospital treatment as an outpatient or inpatient. Vaccination reduces these risks substantially.

Multidisciplinary Team Meetings to Manage Patients with Multimorbidity in Primary Care

Our new paper in the International Journal of Integrated Care reviews the role of multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings in the management of multimorbidity in primary care. MDTs bring together professionals to work together to improve health outcomes for patients. MDT meetings are often recommended as a critical aspect of integrated care in guidance and opinion pieces, but it is not clear how and to what extent their use improves outcomes for patients with multimorbidity. Our review aimed to fill this knowledge gap.

We found limited evidence that supports the implementation of MDT meetings in primary care settings for individuals with multimorbidity. There were also substantial problems with the methodological rigour of previous studies on MDT meetings in primary care. Although MDT meeting are a key strategy for delivering comprehensive integrated care, there is a lack of evidence concerning the efficacy of MDT meetings in primary care. The complexity of interventions meant that causality cannot be attributed to the MDT meeting alone.

There is an urgent need generate more evidence about MDT meetings in primary care. Future research should focus on a broader set of participant characteristics, contextual adaptation, and innovation. Decision makers and clinicians should also take advantage of the recent technological progress in healthcare.

20 Tips on How to Stay Healthy and Well this Winter

With England’s NHS under immense pressure even before the full onset of winter, here are 20 tips on how you can make the most of the NHS, use health services more appropriately, and obtain the care you and your family need to protect your health and wellbeing.

1. Attend for appointments for medication reviews and for the management of long-term conditions when invited.
2. Take-up the offer of Covid-19 and flu vaccinations if you are eligible. Make sure you are up to date with any other vaccinations you are eligible for. Attend for health screening appointments when invited.
3. Use the NHS app to book appointments, view your GP medical record and order repeat prescriptions.
4. Be aware of the range of options for NHS care – including opticians, pharmacists, self-referral services (e.g. podiatry, IAPT, smoking cessation), and NHS 111.
5. Use the NHS electronic prescription service so that your prescription is sent directly to a pharmacy.
6. For queries about hospital care, contact the hospital PALS team rather than your GP.
7. Apply for online access to your hospital records if this is available.
10. Don’t Smoke.
11. Exercise regularly including outdoors so that you get some sunlight exposure. This will also help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
12. Eat 5 portions of fruit & vegetables every day and eat plenty of high-fibre foods.
14. Limit your sugar & salt intake.
15. Limit your alcohol intake to a safe level.
16. Take time to improve your mental health; including by meeting regularly with friends and family.
17. Check your own blood pressure.
18. Take your medication as prescribed.
19. Get a good night’s sleep.
20. Listen to experts on health issues and not random people on social media.

Factors influencing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among South Asians

Our new study in JRSM Open led by Dr Raj Chandok and Dr Poonam Madar examines factors influencing Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy among South Asians in London. Vaccines have a key role in suppressing serious illnesses, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19. London has amongst the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the UK and it’s important to understand the factors behind this so we can work better with local communities to address this key public health challenge. This includes looking at factors such as confidence in Covid-19 vaccines, complacency about the severity of illness arising from Covid-19, communication about vaccines in both the mainstream media and social media, and the context in which people live and work.

Why is FIT important for people with lower gastrointestinal symptoms?

If you consult your doctor about bowel symptoms, they may speak about getting FIT. What is FIT? In this context, it is nothing to do with exercise or how far you can run. FIT stands for faecal immunochemical test, which aims to detect blood in your faeces. The test is highly sensitive.

People with lower bowel symptoms such as a change in their bowel habits will understandably be concerned about the possibility of bowel cancer. The risk of colorectal cancer in people with a negative FIT, a normal examination and normal full blood count is <0.1%. This is lower than the general population risk of colorectal cancer. So this combination of clinical findings allows your doctor to conclude that you are very unlikely to have bowel cancer. However, many people with lower GI symptoms still do not undergo FIT before referral to a specialist.

Patients with a FIT of fHb <10μg Hb/g, a normal full blood count, and no ongoing clinical concerns do not need to be referred on a lower GI urgent cancer pathway but can be managed in primary care or referred on an alternative pathway with suitable safety netting if symptoms change. FIT can improve patient management. By fully implementing the use of FIT in people with lower GI symptoms in primary care, we can spare patients unnecessary colonoscopies, releasing capacity to ensure the most urgent symptomatic patients are seen more quickly in specialist clinics.

There are some patients for whom FIT is not suitable, such as those with iron deficiency anaemia, a rectal or anal mass, or anal ulceration. See below for further guidance on the use of FIT in people with lower GI symptoms.

https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/B2005_i_Using-faecal-immunochemical-testing-lower-gastrointestinal-pathway_primary-care-letter.pdf

https://www.bsg.org.uk/clinical-resource/faecal-immunochemical-testing-fit-in-patients-with-signs-or-symptoms-of-suspected-colorectal-cancer-crc-a-joint-guideline-from-the-acpgbi-and-the-bsg/

Implementation of covid-19 vaccination in the United Kingdom

Our new paper in the British Medical Journal reviews the implementation of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme. The programme is essential in keeping down the number of serious cases, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 and allowing society to function more normally. Overall the programme performed well. But it’s important to address some common misconceptions about the programme. Firstly, the rapid implementation of the Covid-19 in vaccination in the UK was not due to Brexit. When the programme started, the UK had not finalised Brexit. Secondly, the vaccination programme was good and all those who supported the programme are to be congratulated for their efforts but it was not “world-leading” as some politicians have claimed. Many other countries have outperformed the UK in areas such as vaccine uptake.

One limitation of current vaccines is that although they are very successful in reducing the number of serious cases of covid-19, they are less effective in preventing infection from SARS-CoV-2, which means that vaccinated people can still become infected and infect others. Early in the vaccination programme, this was often not communicated well to the public, leading to unrealistic expectations about how well vaccines would suppress the risk of infection, particularly with the emergence of new variants that reduced vaccine efficacy.

The UK became the first country in Europe to grant emergency use authorisation for a covid-19 vaccine when the MHRA gave approval for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in adults on 2 December 2020. This decision took place when the UK was still operating under EU law. Overall, the policy for prioritising people for vaccination was fair but was criticised for not including ethnic minority groups or key occupational groups other than health and care workers, such as people working in public transport or teaching. The pandemic had major effects on the education of children, for example, and it could be argued that staff working in schools should have been prioritised in the same way as NHS staff to reduce the disruption caused by the pandemic to children’s education.

Shortly after the start of the vaccination programme in the UK, the government decided to prioritise delivery of the first dose of vaccine over the second dose, based on advice from the JCVI. This meant a delay in giving the second dose of vaccine from 3-4 weeks after the first dose to 12 weeks. The immunisation programme was disrupted by this decision, with many people having their appointments for their second doses cancelled. A key question for the Covid-19 Inquiry is why the JCVI did not consider a delayed second dose policy before the programme started. The Inquiry also needs to look at what plans were in place for evaluating the effects of the delayed second dose on clinical outcomes such as infection, hospital admission and case fatality rates and on the delivery of the vaccine programme.

Although the UK was an early adopter of covid-19 vaccines for use in adults, it was slower than many other countries to implement vaccination for 16-17 year olds, then for 12-15 year olds, and finally for 5-11 year olds. This also needs careful review by the Covid-19 Inquiry. Additional problems arose after the decision to give some immunocompromised people a third primary dose of vaccine. The rationale was that immunocompromised people often had a poor response to two doses of vaccine and that a third dose would give improved protection. The third dose programme was rolled out with little central or local planning, resulting in considerable confusion among both the public and NHS staff and leading to delays in many eligible people getting their third primary vaccine dose. Key lessons from this component of the vaccination programme were the need to give the NHS adequate time to plan and to ensure that NHS staff are fully briefed in advance of any public announcement or media briefing about vaccination policy. It’s also essential to look at the method of vaccine delivery. In England, there is now a very fragmented system. In the longer term, we need to look to integrate Covid-19 vaccination with other vaccine programmes in primary care and schools.

One area in which the UK excelled internationally was using data from the NHS, covid-19 testing, and national mortality records to monitor vaccine uptake, safety, and effectiveness. Congratulation to PHE and then to the UKHSA who set up this work.

The UK is currently very reliant on overseas manufactured vaccines. We must plan consider how we ensure that the UK can develop, test, and manufacture vaccines for the current and any future pandemics at the speed and quantity needed.

The feedback on our article from patients emphasised the importance of clear, positive messages about vaccination for the public; and personalised support for people who were vaccine hesitant or who had concerns about vaccination to help increase vaccine uptake. Access to vaccination at a local site was also important, particularly for older people or those with limited mobility. Finally, there are many questions about vaccination that the UK’s Covid-19 Inquiry will need to consider. Some of these are summarised below.

Questions for the UK’s Covid-19 Inquiry

  1. What should we be doing to secure the legacy of the covid-19 vaccine research and delivery strategy for vaccine science, vaccine manufacturing, public health, and pandemic preparedness?
  2. Why hasn’t the UK established a pipeline for the rapid development of RNA vaccines?
  3. Why did the UK lag behind many other countries in recommending covid-19 vaccines for children?
  4. How would we respond to a future pandemic causing high levels of morbidity and mortality in children?
  5. Was sufficient attention paid to targeting groups who were likely to be vaccine hesitant?
  6. What can be done to build on the JCVI’s communications and operations—particularly around public and patient involvement and engagement and its position on equality, diversity, and inclusion?
  7. Why did the JCVI not recommend a delayed second dose strategy in its initial recommendations to the government in 2020? What impact did this have?
  8. What is the best method of covid-19 vaccine delivery in the future?
  9. Should staff working in schools also have been included in the initial occupational groups targeted for vaccination (such as health and care workers) reduce the effect of the pandemic on schools, given the many adverse effects of the pandemic on the education, social development, and the physical and mental health of children?
  10. Did the UK government take the correct decisions about vaccine procurement? Was the UK correct to work alone on procurement or should there have been greater collaboration with the EU?
  11. What impact did the over-procurement of vaccines by developed countries such as the UK have on vaccine equity and on the supply of vaccines for lower income countries early in the pandemic?