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NHS news in brief

Our weekly round of NHS and healthcare stories

Bird flu pandemic advice for GPs

With experts acknowledging the inevitability of a bird flu outbreak, GPs in the UK have started receiving guidelines about what to do in the event of a pandemic. The pandemic is expected to begin in Asia where the bird flu may mutate into a human version, eventually spreading to cause as many as 50,000 deaths in the UK. The Department of Health said the publication of guidelines is part of a contingency plan announced in March this year and stressed that the UK is not on a higher state of alert.

The government is planning a stockpile of antiviral drugs and vaccines and could place restrictions on large crowd gatherings and travel. Over 50 people have died of bird flu in Asia so far.

Dementia unaffected by wealth

Being richer and healthier will not protect against dementia, according to the Public Library of Science Medicine. Research involving 13,000 over 65s in England and Wales, suggests that affluent areas, where health and life expectancy are greatest, had normal rates of dementia, even in the over 80s - contradicting previous studies. National statistics suggest that the population of over 80s will double to 5 million by 2031, causing a huge growth of the problem. The research states that 163,000 new cases develop in England and Wales each year. Harriet Millward, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, has called for increased funding, ìto find ways to prevent, cure or treat dementiaî.

UK sperm tests `not to WHO standard'

Sperm testing labs in the UK have failed to meet World Health Organistion (WHO) standards, causing concerns about the authenticity of fertility diagnoses. A paper published online by Human Reproduction found that only 5 per cent of 37 UK labs met all WHO standards for assessing the size and shape of sperm. They warned that clinics could be ìover-diagnosingî problems, leading to unnecessary treatments. Matt Tomlinson, chairman of the Association of biomedical Andrologists, which was set up to oversee standards of male fertility analyses commented: ì The ABA was set up in response to the need for more training and standardisation in clinics. It's foolish of labs to ignore the guidance that is there.î

Doctors speak out against ad hoc screening

A British Medical Association (BMA) report has warned that unregulated screening health checks may be putting patients at risk. The gravest concerns voiced regarded tests available over the Internet. It warns that they can cause harm through false positive or inconsistent results. Early mammograms were also criticised.

Misdiagnosis from these can lead to invasive tests and to surgery in many women, whose cancers may never progress. The report also questions the PSA test, provided by the NHS in relation to prostate cancer, which it says, ìcannot identify those who will dieî, warning that prostate cancer treatment, ìcan cause more problems than the diseaseî.

Firms abusing freedom

Private UK firms are abusing freedom of information laws by asking NHS trusts for financial details. One in three demands under the new legislation comes from private companies. Many of the requests are for information about services that hospitals have sub-contracted, or for comprehensive details about supplies and equipment. NHS managers suspect that firms are using the information to develop their own business plans, or to sell on to third parties for commercial use. An NHS spokesman expressed concern at such behaviour, telling The Times: ìAt a time when many hospitals are in financial difficulties we cannot afford to spend time processing requests from private firms.î

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