From cancer breakthroughs to record-breaking NHS performance flops, it’s been a tumultuous month in the world of health.
1. Breakthroughs in treating cancer
Researchers from UCL claim to have uncovered ‘trunk’ cells in cancerous tumours, which could be targeted using patients’ immune systems to kill cancer. This has furthered hopes for personalised cancer treatment, where cancer vaccines are tailor-made for a particular patient’s cancer. Although this method has not yet been tested in animals or humans, this discovery is being hailed as seminal to our understanding of how cancer and the immune system interact.
A Cancer Research-funded trial has produced encouraging results for a new breast cancer treatment which could shrink invasive cancers in just 11 days. Researchers in Manchester trialled the use of cancer drug Herceptin in combination with others and reported a rapid reduction or complete disappearance of tumours in 25% of women for one of the combinations. This study holds huge potential, providing women with an alternative treatment to chemotherapy with a very quick response time.
2. Cause of multiple miscarriages discovered
A lack of stem cells in the womb lining can cause women to suffer recurrent miscarriages, scientists have discovered. Warwick University researchers revealed that a shortage of these cells can accelerate the ageing process of the womb lining, reducing the success rates for pregnancy.womb
This discovery is essential to preventing miscarriages, which account for approximately 1 in 5 of all pregnancies. Recurrent miscarriage, which is slightly rarer, is defined as the loss of three or more pregnancies in a row. Researchers are now focusing on ways to boost stem cells in the womb lining, and are calling for increased screening for women thought to be at-risk.
3. NHS Winter of Discontent
It’s been a bleak month for the NHS which is struggling with staffing and funding shortages, unprecedented patient demand, and industrial action among its workers.
In brief, here are some of the main NHS headlines:
- Junior doctors carry out their first 48-hour strike post-contract imposition. Over 5,000 non-urgent operations were cancelled across England as a result, although a BBC poll reveals the general public still strongly support industrial action. The BMA and an independent group of doctors have also initiated legal proceedings on the grounds of patient safety against the governmental decision to impose the new contract.
- NHS reports worst ever performance figures. Waiting times for time-sensitive care have soared as the NHS has failed to meet several of its service targets since the start of the year. Approximately 17% of A&E patients waited over 4 hours for care in the last month, which is well in excess of the 5% maximum target. Significant delays in treatment, ambulance care, and hospital discharge among the elderly have also been noted. NHS management has responded by pointing to an overwhelming demand for emergency care since January, although political commentators are drawing attention to social care and nursing cuts.
- BMA survey reveals the extent of NHS financial instability. The survey, which polled one-third of GP surgeries in England, showed that 10% of surgeries – roughly 300 – consider themselves to be financially unsustainable. GP surgeries are already facing unprecedented demands for care, and are holding approximately 40 million more consultations per year than in 2008. A parliamentary public accounts committee also published a report earlier this month outlining the magnitude of the financial problems faced by the NHS, which faced a net deficit of £843 million last year.
- Chronic shortage of senior doctors in hospitals. A census released by the Royal College of Physicians earlier this month revealed that 40% of hospital consultant positions remain unfilled. Hospital trusts explain there is a shortage of suitable candidates, which may get worse in view of growing junior doctor disillusionment with the system. The government is currently holding talks with the BMA to agree a new consultant contract which would remove the clause allowing them to opt-out of non-emergency weekend care.
4. Calls to extend Meningitis B vaccine rejected
The Department of Health has rejected calls to provide the meningitis B vaccine to all children up to the age of 11. More than 800,000 people signed a petition to extend vaccination, which is currently offered to infants at 2 and 4 months of age, along with a booster at 12 months.
The government argued that meningitis B is not a health priority for the UK and extending vaccination would not constitute a good use of limited NHS resources. They added that resources should be used to provide care for the most people possible, and that the current vaccination scheme already targeted the population group most at-risk. Only 418 cases of meningitis B were recorded between 2014 and 2015, of which 25 were fatal.
5. Progress towards male contraceptive pill
Scientists are a step closer to producing a male contraceptive pill to equal female equivalents in both safety and effectiveness. Scientists at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy claim to have produced a pill which is more soluble and stays in the body for longer than previous attempts.
The male contraceptive pill works by creating temporary infertility in men. Once its chemical structure is perfected, the male pill could provide a great contraceptive alternative for couples, and help address the gender imbalance surrounding contraceptive options and responsibilities. Some women cannot take hormonal contraception, most commonly due to high blood pressure and heart conditions.
6. Teenage pregnancy rate at record low
The rate of teenage pregnancy in England and Wales is at its lowest level since records began, with only 23 women under 18 out of every 1,000 falling pregnant in 2014. The current teenage pregnancy rate is also half what it was in 1998, a turnaround which experts are hailing an ‘extraordinary achievement’.
This news comes just as the United Nation releases its latest statistics on global contraceptive use. More women than ever are now using family planning and contraceptive use in developing countries has reached record levels. Global population growth is projected to be cut by 1 billion over the next 15 years as a result. Contraception continues to be high on the international agenda, with world leaders pledging universal access to family planning by 2030.
7. First UK workplace ‘period policy’
A company in Bristol is preparing to introduce the first official ‘Period Policy’ in the UK workplace. The company Coexist believes menstruation poses serious problems to women’s health and will allow its female employees to take time off during their periods.
The policy establishes painful menstruation as a legitimate female health issue and allows women to take time off without feeling it is undeserved. Painful menstruation affects 1 in 5 women, according to a Quartz report, and a UCL emeritus professor of reproductive health has suggested that menstrual cramps can be as ‘bad as having a heart attack’. However, period pain as a medical condition has received very little research to date.