The Five Nations Health Protection Conference took place on 14th and 15th May 2013 in the picturesque surroundings of the Radisson Blu St.Helen’s Hotel in Dublin, Ireland.
The aim of the 5 Nations conference is to provide an annual forum for continuing professional development for Consultants in Communicable Disease Control, Consultants and Specialists in Public Health and the wider health protection workforce.
Alex White, Minister of State for Primary Care in the Department of Health opened the conference with a warm welcome to attendees. He was followed by Dr Michael Ryan of University College Dublin who engaged all those in attendance with a timely review of the lessons learned from the SARS epidemic, ten years on from that defining public health event. Dr Ryan also reflected on the developments in public health preparedness and international co-operation since then, and what impact these would have for current and emerging health threats.
The outbreak sessions always provide the most diverse and perhaps unexpected learning points in a health protection conference and this year was no exception. Two listeria outbreaks provided a valuable insight into the application of fluorescent amplified fragment length polymorphism (fAFLP) typing and shelf life determination. Colleagues from Bradford demonstrated how positive developments can be made following an outbreak, speaking about how they applied their experience of an influenza outbreak in a care home to improve engagement and leadership from care homes in vaccinating their staff members. A presentation of a VTEC outbreak associated with childcare facilities in rural Ireland, highlighted the challenges faced in such outbreaks and the perennial issues of managing children with prolonged VTEC shedding.
The second session showcased the breadth and depth of surveillance being undertaken in health protection. This session was brimming with new technology, including the new technological developments introduced to prepare for the 2012 Olympics and the molecular epidemiology of TB in Scotland. Added to these, were the latest surveillance findings in M.bovis in humans and cattle in Northern Ireland as well as VTEC and Norovirus surveillance schemes in England.
The Bloodborne viruses and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) session was a showcase for initiatives in quality improvement and innovation. It opened with a joint presentation by representatives of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Public Health England discussing how they developed a best practice toolkit for tattooing and skin piercing practitioners to address the lack of consistent national standards. This session also included an innovative study which found that undertaking dried blood spot (DBS) testing for household contacts of Hepatitis B surface antigen positive pregnant women, in their own homes significantly improved screening uptake for partners. There was also exciting STI epidemiology in the form of a cohort study from south west Ireland providing important risk factor information for STIs.
The aptly named “Injecting some common sense into disease prevention” session focused on vaccine preventable diseases. During this session, delegates were treated to a smorgasbord of presentations varying from a measles outbreak in a prison to improving communication with GPs to optimise pertussis surveillance. The session also featured important learning about the decline in vaccine uptake following a change in the childhood vaccination schedule in the Republic of Ireland. The session lived up to its name, with plenty of practical learning points for delegates to take home with them.
“Environmental Change and the Four Furies – Fire, Flood, Freeze and …Wee Beasties” addressed the wide spectrum of environmental public health and kicked off with one of the more unusual topics of fracking. Expertly presented by Dr. Anthony Breslin, this new and important topic for health protection captured the audience’s attention as they learned what exactly fracking is, why it has garnered so much media attention and the potential health issues, which we may be asked about in the future. This well received presentation led on to another on VTEC outbreaks related to private water supplies and provided food for thought on this important topic. The session ended with how public health can address a wide range of natural hazards, inspiring all in attendance.
The coffee breaks provided a great opportunity to make new acquaintances and catch up with old colleagues while perusing the ever growing range of poster presentations. The posters matched the diversity of topics in the programme. The PHMEG prize for best poster was awarded to an impressive poster reporting the results of a pilot home sampling scheme for HIV testing in Manchester and Salford. The investigators used the pilot to demonstrate that home sampling was acceptable to local people with 3000 tests ordered over an 18 month period. A great success and an inspiring message for all of use to take home!
Just as the conference opened with Dr Ryan’s talk on new and emerging disease threats, it also drew to a close with current emerging disease threats in the Hot Topics section. The West Midlands response to a cluster of cases of MERS-CoV (previously Novel Coronavirus 2012) and the challenges faced by the health protection teams provided food for thought on preparing for this new infection while Dr John Watson from Public Health England provided the very latest information on the constantly evolving MERS-CoV and Influenza H7N9 situations.