It’s been another busy month in the world of health. Here’s out our round-up of the main headlines.
1. Zika virus given international emergency status
The Zika virus has risen to international prominence, having been declared a global ‘public health emergency’ by WHO earlier this month.
The declaration relates primarily to its potential link with microcephaly among Zika-infected women – a neurological disorder which can cause brain damage from infancy. Scientific confirmation of this link, as well as Zika’s connection to another neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, is expected imminently.
The Zika virus has spread explosively across the Americas since it was detected in Brazil last year, although its discovery dates back to the 1940s. An estimated 1.5 million Brazilians have caught the virus and 24 countries are reporting incidences.
For a breakdown of the facts, click here to read our overview of the Zika virus.
2. Government imposes new contract on junior doctors
February marks a historic rupture in government relations with public health communities following the decision to impose a highly-contentious new NHS contract upon junior doctors.
Junior doctors across the UK took to the streets for the second time this year to protest against the contract after governmental negotiations with the BMA broke down. It was hoped that the strike, which was widely supported by the general public, would result in a renegotiation of terms.
The decision to impose the contract has been met with disbelief among medical communities. It has sparked fears that increasing numbers of junior doctors will choose to train abroad rather than support a system already suffering a skills shortage. The future of the NHS itself has been put into question, with many suggesting the new contract will result in reduced quality of care and patient safety.
The contract – which will come into effect in August 2016 – has already been rejected by several high-profile hospitals, and a petition calling for a vote of no confidence in Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has quickly gained more than 180,000 signatures.
3. New hope for a drug preventing Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have uncovered a range of drugs which could potentially prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Tests involving the use of a drug called bexarotene have shown promising results in preventing the first stages of the disease which destroys brain function.
The drug could potentially act as way of preventing Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place, rather than treating the disease once it has appeared. Testing is still in its very early stages – tests have only been carried out on worms so far – so there is a long way to go before they can be safely tested on humans.
4. Swine flu outbreak
It’s not a good month for viruses. This winter has seen a surge in cases of swine flu across Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with Iran, Russia, and Ukraine reporting over 100 deaths from the virus respectively.
Severe infection has reached alarming rates in Ukraine, where 3,000 people are hospitalised with the H1N1 virus each day. Experts are trying to establish the cause for the current outbreak, which seems to be disproportionately affecting younger populations.
Swine flu gained international recognition during the 2009-10 pandemic which resulted in approximately 284,000 deaths worldwide. Although vaccination against the virus exists, experts fear vaccination programmes have not been vigorous enough.
5. Condoms made using grass
Researchers in Australia are currently testing a new condom material which uses the fibres from an Australian grass called spinifex. The plant material in question (nanocellulose) is blended with polymers like latex which are commonly used to manufacture condoms.
The new latex formulation is hoped to make condoms even thinner and more flexible, as well as stronger – giving couples worldwide more reason to appreciate all things Down Under.
6. New NICE guidelines on exposure to sunlight
Taking a winter holiday to work on your ‘healthy’, golden sun tan? Think again! NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – have released new guidelines on sun safety which state that there is no safe way to tan.
Whilst the link between the sun’s UV-rays and skin cancer are long established, many people believe that a tan can offer some protection against further exposure to the sun. NICE have suggested that adults always use a sun cream with a minimum SPF of 15.
This comes as especially bad news for Brits who, on average, already have low levels of vitamin D. If you are planning on boosting your levels though, NICE recommend you limit sun exposure to short, frequent periods.