Saturday, June 23, 2007

The European Summit has reached a conclusion. We will have a Treaty, but not a Constitution. The European Union has become a “legal person”, even if it is still constrained by the governments of its member states. It will have a president who remains in post for two and a half years, instead of rotating every six months. And ten years from now it will have a sensible voting system for the Council of Ministers.
Yet there are many measures that have fallen by the wayside. Some are purely symbolic, such as the official recognition of the EU flag and anthem. Others are more serious, such as the watering down of the French proposal to strengthen the social dimension of the EU.
This was, as no-one can fail to notice, Tony Blair’s final European Summit. He came to power promising to place Britain at the heart of Europe. Has he succeeded? You can judge from my open letter to him:

Dear Mr Blair,
Now that you are moving on to the American lecture circuit, where your talents will doubtless be better appreciated, I want to thank you for the way you have taken forward our relationship with our European neighbours. Thank you for:

  • Your opt out from the Schengen agreement, so that I can have all that extra time to think great thoughts as I queue to get through passport controls. Oh, and also because this has ensured continuing employment for those British immigration officers working at the Eurostar terminals in Brussels and Paris – you know, the ones who check your passport five metres after they have already been checked by the French and Belgian officials.
  • Your opt out from the single currency, so that I can continue to contribute large sums of money to the terribly hard up banks each time I change money.
  • Your opt out from European Union provisions on criminal justice, even though you agreed an extradition treaty with the USA that allows British citizens to be extradited without the US authorities even presenting a prima facie case against them (of course the reverse does not apply – it would be inconceivable for the USA to extradite one of their citizens here, and certainly not those who have unlawfully killed British soldiers in Iraq with so-called “friendly fire”)
  • Your refusal to sign up to the Fundamental Charter of Rights, lest we should get ideas above our station and ask for basic rights such as freedom of speech (you never know, we may want to protest about something in Parliament Square without fear of arrest under your terrorism legislation).
  • Your continued opposition to anything that would strengthen the European Union in the area of foreign affairs, lest it should ever challenge our British status as an arm of American foreign policy.
I hate to think where we would now be if you had decided that you really didn’t want to be part of Europe!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Back to South Africa… The final day of our course on health an human rights involved a series of extremely well designed site visits put together by the local OSI team. I joined the group going to Khayelitsha. This is a very large township on the outskirts of Cape Town, larger than many cities, but with many of its population still living in corrugated iron shacks, sharing a common water source. We began with a visit to an AIDS treatment centre, run joint by Médecins Sans Frontières and the Treatment Action Campaign. MSF is very well known globally but TAC may be less so. This was the organisation that spearheaded a legal campaign to force the South African government to make available prophylactic treatment for HIV positive expectant mothers. Their work encapsulates the case for linking lawyers and public health professionals to combine forces to work for health and human rights.
Needless to say, this was an incredibly inspiring visit. The team working in the centre combined idealism with realism and vision with pragmatism. Despite what others would see as insuperable odds, they had put in place a system that was delivering much needed anti-retrovirals to several thousand people. It had been a long struggle, in the face of long-standing denial by some senior South African politicians, supported by a range of individuals promoting the most bizarre ideas about the nature of AIDS and how to treat it. It was only because the authors of the South African constitution had included a legal right to health that it was possible to force the Health Ministry to make treatment available, yet another example of a health ministry that had lost sight of what should be it’s role in advancing the health of its people.
Our second visit, a short distance away, was to a rape crisis centre. Rape is all too common in Khayelitsha, as in many parts of South Africa. While an appalling act anywhere, its significance is even greater here because of the very high prevalence of HIV infection. The centre is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it provides all the essential services for the victim in a single building. A particular success was enlisting support of the local police, so that a dedicated detective is on hand to collect evidence and statements. The conviction rate remains low, but it is a start.
Then it was off to the University of Cape Town, where we met with
Prof Solomon Benatar at the University of Cape Town. A remarkable man, he had been Chief Physician at Groote Schuur Hospital but combined this with an outstanding publishing career in bioethics and human rights. It was absolutely fascinating to listen to his account of the transition in South Africa but also a little depressing as he shared his vision of the future, one that unfortunately seems to be shared by many of my South African colleagues.
Our final visit was to
IDASA, whose name recalls its origins as the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa. In particular, we learned about its Africa Budget Watch, which seeks to introduce a greater degree of transparency into government spending in the continent.
It was one of those days that was exhausting but inspiring, and grateful that there are so many people prepared to take on the really hard issues and make a difference.
The philosophy underpinning the NHS in England is one of patients exercising informed choice. To help them to do this, vast amounts of information are being placed on web sites. A recent example is a new NHS website proving outcomes of paediatric cardiac surgery. Intrigued by this development, I tried to think how it might help me if I was unfortunate to have had a child needing surgery. Not much, unfortunately. The most recent data relate to procedures undertaken in 2004/5, over two years ago. Such a delay is inevitable, given the need to wait until one year survival can be calculated and the data processed. However, in many centres both surgeons and techniques may have changed. Twenty of the procedures listed were undertaken fewer than twenty times in the entire country and even the most common procedure was undertaken an average of less than 28 times a year in each of the sixteen centres, so the numbers in any one centre will be very small and the observed differences are likely to be statistically insignificant due to chance variation. Furthermore, none of the figures are adjusted for risk, an important consideration as many of these children will have other problems. I am sure that those making these data available have the best of intentions but if, as is suggested, they are intended to help parents make choices, then some guidance from government ministers as to how precisely they are meant to do so would be helpful.

Last week I exchanged the warmth of a European summer for a South African winter. I spent most of the week in Cape Town, in my role as a member of the Global Health Advisory Committee of George Soros’ Open Society Initiative. The OSI public health programme, with which I have been involved since its inception, supports the needs of a range of vulnerable populations. One group consists of people who are dying. OSI has played an important role in supporting the development of palliative care in many parts of the world, to reduce the number of people who die in unnecessary pain. Another group consists of those who are in prison, which in many parts of the world is effectively a death sentence because of the harsh conditions and the high risk of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Others include a range of people on the margins of mainstream society, so often overlooked by other NGOs, such as sex workers and drug users. OSI has been at the forefront of international efforts to implement harm reduction policies, such as clean needle exchange and the use of methadone. Then there is a group with which I have been particularly involved, the Roma (or gypsy) population of central and eastern Europe, a group that has been subject to appalling persecution for centuries and, as we have shown most recently in Hungary, continues to have much worse health status than the majority population. Even now, in some of the European Union’s newest member states, they are subject to severe discrimination. However, the older member states should not be complacent, given the now notorious episode at Prague airport when British immigration officials, who were briefly posted there to pre-screen passengers to the UK, refused boarding to a Roma journalist while allowing a colleague, whose circumstances were otherwise identical, to board the plane. The officials had to be withdrawn soon after, in part because the entire episode was filmed.The training course in Cape Town was a joint venture between OSI’s Public Health, Justice, and Human Rights and Governance programmes. Our aim was to explore how we could collectively use the expertise and experience from the different programmes to make the world a better place. Armed with a workbook and a substantial resource pack, which contained all you could ever want to know about a range of international legal instruments, we worked through the opportunities offered by combining law and health to address the issues of the various populations with which we were concerned. This was interspersed with a series of excellent panels and presentations drawing in particular on the way in which NGOs in South Africa had addressed the many recent challenges that country has faced. My role was to act as a resource person for the discussions on minority rights, providing background information on the Roma population. I was accompanied by Willem Odendaal, from the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia. Willem’s expertise relates to the San people (sometimes referred to as Bushmen), who live in Namibia, Botswana, and (in much smaller numbers) neighbouring countries. He and his colleagues have been doing a remarkable job, providing much needed support for San people trying to uphold their legal and constitutional rights. Although the Roma and the San are clearly different in many ways, it was also striking how much they have in common, or rather, the extent to which mainstream societies have treated them in the same way. Both groups are seriously disadvantaged. Their communities are poorly served by basic health and educational facilities (graphically described, for the Roma, by the recent report “Ambulance not on the way”). They face widespread discrimination and often suffer gravely at the hands of the police. They are seen as in some way separate from the state, often denied the necessary paperwork to access services. The plight of the San is especially severe, as they face pressure to move off traditional lands to make way for game parks and diamond mining, among other things. Like indigenous people everywhere, they have terrible health problems, in particular alcoholism and tuberculosis. Yet when they queue at health clinics, which often can only be reached after long journeys, the majority population walk straight to the front of the queue, as if the San people didn’t exist. Some time ago, with Judith Healy, I edited a book looking at how health systems meet (or more often don’t meet) the needs of the diverse groups within society. Among the indigenous populations we included, along with the Roma, Native Americans, First Nation Canadians, Australian Aborigines, and New Zealand Maoris. From what I now know, we should clearly have included the San.
I am extremely grateful to Willem for helping me, and the other participants on the course, to understand the challenges that the San continue to face and to my colleagues in OSI for bringing public health, legal and human rights people together in a way that allowed us to learn so much from each other.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The reason I was in Basel (see last blog) was to speak at the annual meeting of the Swiss Medical Association (SGIM). The title I was given by Verena Briner, the Association’s president, was “Does longer life mean better life and better life mean longer life?”. Of course this was an impossible question, so it was necessary to break it down into a number of constituent parts. The first question related to what is happening with longevity. Life expectancy has increased enormously in developed countries in the past century, even though retirement age has hardly changed. What can we expect in the future?
Essentially, there are two views. One is that there is no reason why life expectancy should not continue to increase. The other was that we are now, at least in the countries where people are now living longer, reaching a biological limit. I was able to draw, in particular, on an excellent review of the evidence by Jean-Marie Robine, who is one of the leading European experts in this field. In essence, it seems that the maximum age at death is not likely to increase dramatically in the future, with the oldest people dying at about 110. However, many of those people who, in the past, died much younger, are now living to quite old ages, so that overall life expectancy is increasing.
But if people are living longer, will they be sicker? Almost 30 years ago, Jim Fries, at Stanford, proposed the concept of “compression of morbidity”, whereby the factors that allowed populations to age, such as reductions in risk factors such as smoking throughout life, would mean that those surviving to old age would be healthier than in the past. There is now considerable evidence that this is happening. However, older people are accumulating more chronic disorders, such as diabetes, Parkinsons Disease, and arthritis. Fortunately, the availability of modern pharmaceuticals is allowing them to remain active and engaged with society.
But does this mean that they will cost society more for their health care. Apparently not. What does cost money is not being old but being close to death. Indeed, paradoxically, the cost of dying is often less at older ages because health professionals intervene less intensively.
So the challenge is how to age successfully. This is an issue that is being examined by my colleague Yvonne Doyle. Using imaginative analysis of British surveys, she is showing how important it is not only to minimise exposure to risk factors but also to remain engaged with society and, in particular, to retain self-confidence. Essentially, you need to believe in yourself as you get older. The crucial thing is that you should not write yourself off when you retire.
Clearly, this was a more optimistic message than many of the audience were used to and it was nice to have such a positive reception when I finished. However, I then received a tribute that has, in my experience, quite unique when, at the dinner afterwards, one of the speakers read a poem about my talk that he had written in the intervening few hours. I am extremely grateful to Dr Max Stäubli both for writing it and for his permission to reproduce it below. I haven’t attempted to translate if from the original German as it would ruin the rhyme. However, if readers want to pass it through Google Translate, I won’t stand in their way, but of course I certainly won’t guarantee whether it still means anything when it comes out the other end!

Heisst länger leben besser leben,
den Standard immer höher heben?
Dazu muss man statistisch denken,
das heisst, den Blick erst rückwärts lenken:
die letzten 170 Lenze
stieg an die mittlere Lebensgrenze
aufs Doppelte, kam `s nicht zur Panne
verfrüht schon in der Lebensspanne.
Doch gilt die Regel wiederum
nicht für das Altersmaximum,
denn dieses in der gleichen Zeit
wuchs nur um eine Kleinigkeit.
Daraus folgt klar die Konklusion,
Wunschdenken nur und Illusion
ist `s wenn man glauben will, es werde
der Mensch stets älter auf der Erde.

Auch hier ist `s besser, Mass zu halten,
den Alltag sinnvoll zu gestalten,
Verpflichtung weiterhin zu wagen,
dem Raucherlaster zu entsagen
und immer kreativ zu bleiben,
vernünftig einen Sport zu treiben,
so wird auch kürzer jene Zeit
der Drittpersonabhängigkeit.
Die Alten alten so gesünder
im Kreise der Urenkelkinder.

In Japan sind die Mehrfachkranken
viel seltener, was sie verdanken
der Soja- oder Tofuspeise,
das heisst, der Grundernährungsweise.
Und immer öfter lassen Leiden
beim Älterwerden sich vermeiden,
sowie entsprechende Beschwerden,
die Wohlbefindlichkeit gefährden.
Ist über 90, wer verstirbt,
Herr *Couchepin `s [Swiss minister of health affairs] Budget nicht verdirbt,
denn in dem Falle klar ergibt sich,
man macht nicht alles, was mit 70,
man noch zu investieren neigt,
wenn sich die gleiche Krankheit zeigt.

Ist auf der Pyramidenspitze
man angelangt, braucht es die Stütze
durch unsere Lieben zwecks Bewegung,
für Botengänge und Verpflegung,
dass letztere nicht nur einerlei,
jedoch gemischt bekömmlich sei.
Wer insgesamt sich so bemüht,
auch noch mit 95 blüht,
trägt bei zum Sozialprodukt,
indem man seine Papers druckt.
Und das gelingt, wenn nimmermüd`
man bleibt auch ein Vereinsmitglied,
pro Jahr sich einmal SGIM-versammelt,
damit der Estrich nicht vergammelt.

Max Stäubli, Basel, 2007
Public health is, first and foremost, about ensuring that the widest range of policies work in ways that promote, rather than damage, population health. One set of policies that is critically important is transport. A society that is dependent on the car is fundamentally unhealthy. Cars pump out toxic fumes and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They cause injuries, either by driving over pedestrians, or by conveying their occupants at high speed into solid objects. They convey us from door to door so that we need never walk, and thereby use up some of the calories in the food that we used our cars to collect. The most extreme examples are seen in some American cities, where ubiquitous drive-thru banks, fast food outlets, shops, and almost everything else means that you never need to get out of your car…. ever. Some medieval Europeans believed that the Mongol raiders who appeared at the walls of their cities each spring were half-man and half-horse as they never saw the raiders dismounted. Similarly, a visitor from Mars could easily assume that people from Alabama were born with four wheels instead of legs.
Yet, for many people, cars are essential. They allow people to meet together and overcome social isolation. They support economic development, through their production, sale, and what they enable us to do, such as being tourists. The challenge is to find a way to use the car when we need to but use alternatives where this is possible. Yet this only becomes possible if there is a functioning public health system.
Sadly, this is not the case in England. It is possible to get a reasonably priced train fare but only if you book weeks in advance and are willing to travel at a time that is extremely inconvenient. The privatised train companies use financial incentives to encourage their ticket collectors to recoup as many penalty charges as possible, using highly inventive approaches – did someone use the word scams – to extract money from helpless people who have been mystified by the complexity of the fare schedules. Deregulation of buses has left many rural areas without any meaningful links. And despite some recent progress in places like London, we are years away from achieving an integrated transport system. Take the trip to Heathrow. The Heathrow express train, at £29 for a return ticket (even more if you buy it on the train) is the most expensive journey per passenger kilometre in the world. In fact expressed this way it is even more expensive than flying Concorde to New York was before it was retired. If there are two of you, it is much cheaper to take a minicab.
Against this background, it was a wonderful experience to spend the week before last in Switzerland. I had meetings in Lausanne, Berne, Basel, and Geneva, so I packed in a lot of travel. The trains were punctual, comfortable, and unlike many British trains, there were enough seats for everyone. However even my high expectations were exceeded when I arrived in Basel.

This beautiful old city on the Rhine has a remarkable tram system. Nowhere do you need to wait more than a few minutes for a tram and the very clear maps at every stop make it simple to find your way around. When you book into a Basel hotel you get a free transfer with your confirmation and, as soon as you check in, you get a ticket for unlimited travel covering the duration of your stay.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. I had to come back to London where a single journey on the tube costs £4 (€6) if you haven’t previously bought one of the prepaid Oyster card. This is nothing other than a legalised process of fleecing tourists.
Clearly, if we want people in the UK to use public transport, we need to emply a few Swiss transport advisers to sort our creaking system out.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Much of my work involves trying to ensure that policies are based on the best possible evidence. This is often far from easy. From at least the early 1960s (and indeed, if we look carefully enough, even before that) that smoking causes lung cancer. We have even known for about 30 years that breathing other people’s smoke is dangerous. Yet it will only be on the 1st of July that smoking will be banned in public places in England. Long after their position became ridiculous, the cabinet, and in particular the then Health Secretary, Dr John Reid, held out against a comprehensive ban. His favoured alternative would be to exempt bars that did not sell food, precisely the places where the most disadvantaged people congregated. The fact that this was entirely incompatible with the government’s stated aim of reducing inequalities did not seem to worry him, but then this is a government that has never had any difficulty in pursuing more than one mutually contradictory policies at the same time.
But what about the government’s position on evidence to inform other policies. Everyone is, of course, familiar with the notorious statement that the Iraqi regime, under Saddam Hussein, could prepare and fire a weapon of mass destruction in 45 minutes. Unfortunately, no-one in our so-called “intelligence” service seems to have subjected this claim to the simple test of seeing whether it was actually possible, even in the best of circumstances where you did not have weapons inspectors crawling all over you. This is reminiscent of the concerns about the missile gap in the 1960s, when the western powers were alarmed about the large numbers of missiles being built by the USSR, forgetting that the missiles took over 24 hours to prepare for firing and there were only a handful of launchers.
However, the one that causes me most irritation, because I spend so much time at airports, is the rule that you can only take liquids through security of they are in containers of 100ml or less, and they must all fit inside a small plastic bag. At Heathrow Terminal 4 it is common to have 11 people standing outside security handing out plastic bags while the queues build up inside because there is no-one to staff the scanners. We have all seen the ludicrous consequences – in this blog I previously mentioned the Australian couple who had to throw away a container used to contain water when hiking – with a long plastic straw incorporated in it – even though it was empty. It was still a container of over 100mls! However, what surprisingly few people seem to realise is that the scientific basis for this policy is, how shall I put it, entirely non-existent. Now I realise that some people (in fact anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry and some curiosity) has known this for a long time. Yet I guess, like me, they were afraid to say anything. After all, it is all too easy to be locked away as a suspected terrorist these days. However, I now feel able to speak out – simply because someone far more famous than me has done so. In last Sunday’s Observer newspaper, Professor Richard Dawkins was recounting his recent travels and, obviously frustrated by the hassle he was experiencing, listed the web site where you can read all about the junk science underpinning this policy. I encourage readers to look at his
article but I’ll leave you to follow his links (his fame may keep him out of trouble – I can’t be so sure about mine!).
I confess, when this policy came in last summer, I was not terribly surprised. After all, this is a government that never looses an opportunity to give the impression that it is tackling terrorism. What I never suspected would be that other European governments would be taken in by it. That was the real surprise. So am I pessimistic about getting evidence into policies in the health sector. Actually, no. We have made huge progress. Where I am worried is about the other areas of government that seem to have avoided concepts such as empiricism and peer review. There lies the problem.