Increase in group B meningococcal disease in teenagers and young adults

Recent data and analysis from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows that in autumn 2021 there was an increase in the number of cases of meningococcal disease in teenagers and young adults, mainly caused by group B meningococcal disease (MenB) – with the majority among university students.

Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening infection caused by bacteria that can go on to cause meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). There are 5 main meningococcal strains that cause disease in the UK. Men B is the most common strain in the UK and other strains include MenA, MenC, MenW and MenY.

The disease can progress rapidly so it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms so that you can get medical help as soon as possible.

Restrictions to reduce the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19) saw the rates of meningococcal disease at a historic low until September 2021. As restrictions lifted data shows that cases of meningococcal disease began to rise, with the number of cases in 15 to 19 year olds now higher than they were pre-pandemic and mainly due to MenB.

In the UK, teenagers are eligible for the meningococcal ACWY vaccine as part of the national immunisation programme, and the MenB vaccine is offered to infants. Cases of meningococcal disease due to all strains have remained substantially lower than pre-COVID-19 years in infants, toddlers and young children.

Professor Ray Borrow, Head of the Vaccine Evaluation Unit at UKHSA and one of the lead authors of the paper, said:

“Students and parents need to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia. If you’re concerned you have any of the symptoms seek immediate medical help as the earlier you get treatment the better.

“Students and young people can also help protect themselves against some types of meningococcal bacteria by ensuring that they’ve had their MenACWY vaccine. They can do this by checking with their GP and getting the vaccine as soon as possible if they’ve yet to be vaccinated.

“We have one of the most comprehensive surveillance programme for vaccine preventable diseases and will continue to monitor cases of meningococcal disease across England.”

Elements of this story are being shared under the Open Government license.

GPhC appoints new supplier for common registration assessment sittings

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has confirmed that it will be working with a new provider, BTL Group Ltd, to run the common registration assessment sittings it holds jointly with the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

BTL provide the computer-based testing platform, Surpass, as well as test centres across the UK and internationally. They have experience of delivering services to a range of clients, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Ophthalmology.

Candidates will sit the common registration assessment online in a network of test centres across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The GPhC and PSNI will run two sittings in 2022, as was the case before the pandemic. The next sitting will be in June 2022.

GPhC Chief Executive, Duncan Rudkin said:

“I’m pleased to confirm that we have appointed BTL as the supplier for the common registration assessment for the next 3 years after a thorough tender process. BTL has extensive experience of running high stakes healthcare examinations similar to the common registration assessment. 

“The information provided by BTL during the tender process has given us the necessary assurance that they can support us in continuing to deliver a fair and robust assessment that tests candidates’ ability to register as a pharmacist. We will now work closely with BTL on arrangements for the sittings in 2022, to make sure we can provide a positive experience for candidates.

“This follows our earlier time-limited contract with Pearson Vue with whom we successfully delivered our first online assessments during 2021.”

Pharmaceutical Society NI Chief Executive and Interim Registrar, Trevor Patterson said:

“We are looking forward to continuing our partnership with the GPhC and building on the success of the November registration assessment by jointly delivering a UK wide common registration assessment for trainee pharmacists with the new provider BTL.”

BTL Managing Director, Sonya Whitworth, said:

“We are delighted to work with the GPhC and PSNI to deliver their registration assessment through our secure Test Centre Network. Prestigious medical testing organisations all over the world trust the innovative item and test development functionality in Surpass, and we look forward to sharing our experience and that of the Surpass Community with the experts at the GPhC.”

More information for GPhC candidates will be available on the GPhC website in early 2022, and all eligible candidates will be contacted in due course. 

For Pharmaceutical Society NI candidates, Further information will be available on the PSNI website in early 2022. NI candidates will be contacted directly by Pharmaceutical Society NI. 

New Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England announced

The NHS in England has today confirmed the appointment of the next Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England.

David Webb, currently Chief Pharmacist and Clinical Director for Pharmacy and Medicines Optimisation at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London, will join the Medical Directorate and lead the national pharmacy team from February.

In his new role, David will be a member of NHS England and NHS Improvement Medical Directorate’s senior management team, the UK Government Chief Medical Officer’s senior clinical group, Head of the Pharmacy Professions in England and the principal advisor on pharmacy and medicines use in the NHS, which includes supporting the Department of Health and Social Care.

The new appointment follows Keith Ridge retiring from the role, after 16 years in the post.

David said:

“The last two years has been an extremely challenging time for all NHS colleagues, but it has also highlighted the absolutely vital and positive role that pharmacists and pharmacy technicians play as clinical professionals in the NHS team.

“Whether it’s been hospital teams supporting the care of over half a million very ill patients, community pharmacy teams delivering over 21 million jabs across the country, or primary care teams being at the forefront of the vaccination programme in local communities, they have been central in every part of the NHS COVID-19 response – in addition to pharmacy teams everywhere continuing their usual clinical roles of supporting patients and delivering safe and effective health services.

“I’m very proud to be appointed to be Chief Pharmaceutical Officer and to lead the next stage of the transformation of pharmacy practice working with colleagues across the healthcare system to support them, listen to them and enable them to continue to deliver to the highest standards, helping the NHS recover services, improve the use of medicines for patients in the 21st century and deliver on important Long Term Plan commitments”.

Chair of the RPS in England Thorrun Govind said:

“I warmly congratulate David on his appointment and look forward to working closely with him and his team on how we can help the pharmacy profession support excellent patient care and the NHS recovery in England.

“This transition comes at a crucial moment and with further changes in the next few years, it is vital that the RPS, NHS England and leaders across pharmacy continue working together on key issues such as the future of pharmacy education, staff wellbeing, and advancing pharmacy practice.”

NPA Chief Executive Mark Lyonette commented:

“We look forward to working with David on a can-do agenda for community pharmacy.  He has a huge agenda ahead, including covid recovery and long term NHS ambitions such as tackling antimicrobial resistance and increasing access to primary care.  His success will depend heavily on a productive partnership with NPA members, in relation to clinical services, preventative care and many other areas.

“I hope he will embed a pharmacy-conscious culture amongst colleagues throughout NHS England, building on the profile created by community pharmacy’s vital contribution to the NHS’s covid-19 response. We also want to see continued progress on integration, with a golden thread of pharmacy running through hospital, practices and community”.

Rare human case of avian flu detected in UK

The UK Health Security Agency has confirmed a case of avian influenza in a person in the South West of England.

Bird-to-human transmission of avian flu is very rare and has previously only occurred a small number of times in the UK.

The person acquired the infection from very close, regular contact with a large number of infected birds, which they kept in and around their home over a prolonged period of time.

All contacts of the individual, including those who visited the premises, have been traced and there is no evidence of onward spread of the infection to anyone else. The individual is currently well and self-isolating.

The risk to the wider public from avian flu continues to be very low. However, people should not touch sick or dead birds.

Avian flu, also known as bird flu, is a type of influenza that spreads among birds. The UK has recently seen a large number of outbreaks and incidents of avian influenza in birds across the country of the H5N1 strain and Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer have issued alerts to bird owners.

Some strains of bird flu can pass from birds to people, but this is extremely rare. It usually requires close contact with an infected bird, so the risk to humans is generally considered very low. Human-to-human transmission of bird flu is very rare.

The case was detected after APHA identified an outbreak of outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in their flock of birds. Their infection was identified through the routine monitoring which is conducted on anyone who has close contact with infected birds. The infected birds have all been culled.

In line with the highly precautionary approach that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) takes to identifying and stopping the transmission of avian flu, UKHSA swabbed this person and detected low levels of flu. Further laboratory analysis revealed that the virus was the ‘H5’ type, found in birds.

At this point it has not been possible to confirm that this is a H5N1 infection (the strain that is currently circulating in birds in the UK). Based on the available evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been notified.

This is the first human case of this strain in the UK, although there have been cases elsewhere globally.

Professor Isabel Oliver, Chief Scientific Officer at UKHSA, said:

“While the risk of avian flu to the general public is very low, we know that some strains do have the potential to spread to humans and that’s why we have robust systems in place to detect these early and take action.

“Currently, there is no evidence that this strain detected in the UK can spread from person to person, but we know that viruses evolve all the time and we continue to monitor the situation closely. We have followed up all of this individual’s contacts and have not identified any onward spread.

“It remains critical that people do not touch sick or dead birds, and that they follow the DEFRA advice about reporting.”

The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, said:

“While avian influenza is highly contagious in birds, this is a very rare event and is very specific to the circumstances on this premises.

“We took swift action to limit the spread of the disease at the site in question, all infected birds have been humanely culled, and cleansing and disinfection of the premises is underway. This is a reminder that stringent cleanliness when keeping animals is important.

“We are seeing a growing number of cases in birds on both commercial farms and in backyard flocks across the country. Implementing scrupulous biosecurity measures will help keep your birds safe.

“UKHSA follows up all individuals who have been in contact with a confirmed case of avian influenza. For those with the highest risk exposures, we contact them daily to see if they have developed symptoms so that we can take appropriate action.

“People are also offered anti-viral treatment after exposure to infected birds. This is to stop the virus reproducing in their body if they have picked it up and should prevent them from becoming unwell. It also helps reduce the risk of passing the infection on to others.

“We also swab people even if they don’t have symptoms, to help our surveillance programmes and make sure we identify anyone infected so that we can take action to control any risk of transmission.”

Elements of this story are shared under the Open Government License.

PDA donations to Pharmacist Support exceed £150,000

The Pharmacist Defence Association (PDA) has donated more than £150,000 to Pharmacist Support.

A number of years ago the PDA agreed to donate £1 per member annually to Pharmacist Support. The agreement remains in place.

This year the PDA is encouraging employers and pharmacist organisations to donate £1 per pharmacist employee or member to the Pharmacist Support charity and to collectively make a substantive difference to the charity’s funding from 2022 onwards.

Pharmacist Support is an independent, trusted charity, providing a wide variety of support services to pharmacists and their families, former pharmacists and pharmacy students in Great Britain.

The PDA commented:

“With an ever-increasing number of individuals needing assistance and a widening range of services the charity is called upon to provide, it is important that organisations concerned about pharmacists’ wellbeing play their part in providing financial aid to Pharmacist Support.  Just one example of support provided is the new counselling service launched in April 2021 which helps to address the high levels of stress and potential burnout present across the profession.  This service provides crucial support through twelve sessions of fully funded counselling to pharmacists, students, or trainees.

“Many PDA members who have had their legal and employment concerns addressed by the PDA, additionally call upon Pharmacist Support to help with the impact of such events on their emotional wellbeing.  As such the defence association recognises the importance of Pharmacist Support’s activity and has been donating £1 for each member, every year since 2018. This strategic charity partnership between the PDA and Pharmacist Support has now generated more than £150,000 for the benefit of the charity and for those it supports.

“In such unprecedented times, when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of those working at the frontline of patient care is yet to be fully understood, we all need to get behind the Pharmacist Support charity, so that it can provide even more support for pharmacists.

“The PDA is therefore encouraging pharmacy employers and other pharmacist organisations to make a New Year’s resolution to replicate the PDAs “one pound per pharmacist” scheme.

“Most pharmacists are employed. The largest employers are multi-£Billion corporations with thousands of pharmacists in their organisations, other employers are much smaller with far fewer pharmacists. Similarly, the RPS for example with an annual turnover of more than £20million could also participate and support the charity based on its membership levels and other smaller organisations could also consider such a move based on their size. The “one pound per pharmacist” approach means that all those donations would be proportionate.

“If this suggestion were widely adopted, the total amount raised each year could significantly increase donations to the profession’s charity. In the meantime, all PDA members, including the pharmacy students and trainee pharmacists who receive free membership, can be assured that the PDA still donates £1 on behalf of each and every member to Pharmacist Support, every year.”

PDA Chairman, Mark Koziol said:

“The PDA is founded on the principle that a civilized society is one where those who are in a position to, reach out and give a helping hand to those who are most in need of help. At this time of pandemic crisis, we know that pharmacists, especially those at the coal face have faced sustained and highly stressful pressure and many have reached breaking point.”

“Whilst we will continue to hold employers to account for systemic and routine staffing shortages and other issues, we know that because of the pandemic the extra workload caused by staffing shortages due to illness and self-isolation of a significant proportion of pharmacy staff will not disappear in the short term.

“We believe that if employers and other pharmacy organisations make an important New Year’s resolution to join in with the effort to pay one pound for each of their employees or members to Pharmacist Support, with over 60,000 on the register and some individuals connected to several organisations in addition to their employer, donations could add up to a substantial amount. In turn, this could enable this important charity to do a lot more to support many more pharmacists in need of help.”

HPV vaccination slow-down puts men at cancer risk

Lack of capacity to deliver “game-changing” HPV vaccines in Scotland during the pandemic will have led to some men contracting cancer, says a sexual health academic.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) aged 45 or younger who attend a sexual health or HIV clinic in Scotland have been offered the HPV vaccine since July 2017.

But just 70% of 17,460 eligible men received at least one dose, and only half of those who started the programme went onto complete the full course. Completion rates have been much lower during the pandemic, with fewer than one in eight starting and finishing the programme in the year since July 2020.

Professor Claudia Estcourt, Professor of Sexual Health & HIV at Glasgow Caledonian University, warned some men will have contracted HPV as a result:

“Clinics have not had the capacity to recover routine vaccination clinic slots, and therefore some people will become infected with high-risk HPV who would not have done if there hadn’t been a pandemic.

“This is one of the many, many adverse impacts of the pandemic hitting a health care system already at maximum stretch.”

There are over 200 types of HPV or human papillomavirus, and most people will get infected at some point in their lives.

With no symptoms, most cases pass undetected but those that persist can lead to cervical, anal, throat and penile cancers.

The vaccine is considered the best protection from high-risk HPV, with the first major study into immunisation showing thousands of women had been prevented from developing cervical cancer after being vaccinated as young teenagers.

Professor Estcourt says similar results could be in store for MSM, who are currently up to 20 times more likely than heterosexual men to develop anal cancer.

She told healthandcare.scot: “The HPV vaccine is a game-changer in many HPV-related cancers and we would expect important benefits in cancer reduction in MSM.

“This has been shown in Australia where HPV vaccination was introduced earlier than in UK.”

MSM do not benefit from the indirect protection that heterosexual men get from the girls’ immunisation programme that has operated in Scotland since 2008.

All pupils have been offered the HPV vaccine in their first year of secondary school since 2019, but it will take a number of years before direct protection from this programme is seen in MSM.

There will also be a gap for MSM who missed the vaccination programme at age 12 until such time as they attend sexual health services.

A number of organisations, like the Terrence Higgins Trust, are campaigning for a national “catch-up” programme for older boys so no one is left vulnerable.

Professor Estcourt says she would support expanding access to all young men aged 12-18, once routine vaccination under the existing programme has restarted.

Issues in take-up and completion will be hampered not only by a stretched healthcare system but also by a lack of awareness and the absence of a formal re-call notification system to encourage men to return to clinics to complete the programme.

She said: Men eligible for vaccination were vaccinated during routine visits for STI testing, treatment or PrEP review but no formal call-recall system was implemented.

“People can find it hard to attend all their vaccination appointments, with three needed for most adults over a four-month period.

“Lack of awareness of the risks of HPV may well be an issue for MSM who have not attended sexual health clinics [since 2017].

“Awareness-raising could include mass media messaging, inclusion in school-based sex and relationship education and through general practice.”


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