Check Up: on an unexpected Brexit bonus and the importance of flu jabs

    20 October 2016


    Could leaving the European Union prove good for our long-term health? The-General Medical Council say it may now be able to tighten up the tests that EU doctors have to sit before they can work in this-country. There have been-several high-profile cases of practitioners from other member nations whose lack of-English and/or-incompetence have put patients at risk and in some cases led to needless deaths. Until now, EU free-movement laws have restricted the GMC’s ability to apply rigorous tests and it could often intervene only after concerns had already been raised. Whether or not the situation will now improve depends on whether the principle of free movement is retained when Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is finally negotiated. The GMC has long argued that it should have the right to test the English language skills and clinical competencies of doctors from the EU, just as it can for those coming from elsewhere.


    As winter creeps closer it’s that time of year when people should be getting their flu jabs. Those eligible for free vaccination on the NHS include older people, pregnant women and patients with long-term health problems. Yet while the uptake for the elderly tends to be quite good – about three quarters of older people get the jab, those with chronic health conditions are not so good at getting protection. According to research from Public Health England, barely half who suffer conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease or lung problems get vaccinated. This is despite shocking statistics showing that this vulnerable group are at far greater risk of dying if they contract influenza than the general population. People with liver disease, for example, are 50 times more likely to die. Flu jabs are available from your GP and also from pharmacies.


    Big pharma has finally got behind the international push to tackle antibiotic-resistance by publishing a new strategy setting out the specific actions it intends to take. More than 13 global pharmaceutical companies have signed up to a ‘roadmap’ detailing 15-measures they will implement. These include action to curb the environmental impact of antibiotic production; to ensure that the drugs are used only by patients who need them; to boost access to current and future antibiotics, vaccines, and diagnostic tests; and explore new opportunities for open collaborations with the public sector.

    The action plan builds on January’s Davos Declaration, signed by more than 100 companies and 13 associations from the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and diagnostics industries. It seems that people are finally starting to take this issue seriously. Read Jonathan Foreman’s investigation into the pending crisis in the next Spectator Health.


    The proportion of adults in England who smoke has hit a record low of 17 per cent, according to Public Health England. At the same time, the number of cigarettes sold in England and Wales has plummeted, possibly thanks to the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and other quitting aids, and also to new restrictions on packaging. The remaining seven million smokers are being encouraged to stop this month in the annual ‘Stoptober’ campaign. PHE says that of the 2.5 million who tried to quit last year, 20 per cent were successful, the highest–ever proportion. Spectator Health has championed e-cigarettes in a previous cover essay by Derek Yach and the latest figures show that-‘vaping’ is indeed invaluable in helping people to quit. More than a million smokers used e-cigs to stop in 2015 alone. This compares to 700,000 using nicotine patches or gums.

    LAVENDER for the nerves

    There is new hope for people who suffer from crippling anxiety but would prefer not to be prescribed medication. While the standard treatment is now Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a type of psychotherapy, drugs are still frequently prescribed. Now there’s a new herbal remedy in the form of lavender oil capsules from Kalms. The formula has been available on the continent for nearly ten years, but has only just made it to the UK. This means that there has already been a lot of research into how effective it is. In a series of double-blind placebo–controlled trials, lavender oil capsules were compared to several other medications. The first, paroxetine, is an SSRI — a type of antidepressant routinely prescribed in the UK for anxiety disorders. The lavender oil capsules proved as effective as the paroxetine but without the side-effects. Researchers also compared the capsules to lorazepam — a benzodiazepine that was once a popular treatment for anxiety but is now-rarely prescribed due to its addictive properties. Again, it was found that the lavender oil is just as effective but with no risk of addiction.


    Promising new research from Japan for patients with eye problems —a research team has successfully transplanted retinal pigment cells derived from the stem cells of one monkey into the eyes of another without rejection, and without the need for anti-rejection drugs. This opens up the possibility of transplanting healthy cells into patients with age-related deterioration or disease. In fact, the researchers, from Japan’s RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology have now launched a clinical trial of stem-cell transplants in people with age-related macular degeneration, which causes vision loss as you get older. With an ageing population, eye health is increasingly important. Half of all blindness is preventable, yet half of all adults admit they have not been to the optician in the past two years and one in five say they have never been. For more on eye health, see Victoria Lambert on page 34.


    It’s a problem now widespread in universities: students taking performance–enhancing medication. Recent research by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency found that one in seven were using so-called ‘smart drugs’. Most of these are brought online and the MHRA warns students tempted to take them that thousands of websites have been shut down for selling fake or-unlicensed drugs — and even genuine medicines can be highly dangerous when taken without proper checks and a doctor’s prescription.

    There are two main drugs used as ‘cognitive enhancers’: Modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy, and methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin), commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are thought to improve attention span, focus and memory, although the research supporting their use as a study-aid is not clear — there are claims that the alleged benefits come purely from the-placebo effect. But the MHRA warns thatthe possible adverse effects of taking them include the risk of dependence, cardio-vascular problems and psychosis. The supply of prescription-only medicines without a prescription is also a criminal offence.


    For many years doctors have been concerned about a possible link between vasectomies and prostate cancer. Various studies had suggested that having the snip might increase the risk of developing the cancer. Various theories linking the two have been put forward, although few were-convincing. Now a large, well-conducted study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology has gone a long way to putting this suspicion to rest. After examining data gathered from nearly 364,000 men, no link was found.

    It’s possible that previous associations were simply down to the fact that men who had undergone a vasectomy had more contact with urologists, were more likely to have their prostate checked, and therefore this picked up higher rates of false-positives than would otherwise have been-reported. The two things that are known to make prostate cancer more likely are smoking and obesity.