BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Goodbye in this format

Susan Watts | 12:03 UK time, Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Some of you may have noticed that I'm not the most frequent of bloggers. Under the Beeb's new blogging policy, frequency is uppermost in deciding who stays and who goes. So this is my last blog.

I'll still be writing longer pieces, as an online complement to items that run on the programme. But it's goodbye in this format

Funny, because just a few days ago a colleague decided to check out a blog I wrote on the power of aspirin - before deciding whether or not to buy a tonne of the stuff, to help ward off cancer.

And that got me thinking about other postings, and their unexpected ripple-effect, like the one that prompted an invite to a closed door meeting ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference, and led to interviews with key players.

Then there was the one that prompted contacts from within the UN system to get in touch over how to make the best use of science in warning the world about tsunamis, or nuclear accidents.

And my first pandemic flu blog, which kept people calling with suggestions for fresh lines for the programme.

Others that made a mark include a posting on the death of the campaigner Haydn Lewis, who told the world so much about the plight of haemophiliacs in the UK by being brave enough to make his own story public.

My personal favourites include: bringing together Stephen Hawking, Eels and the Theory of Everything, uncovering the truth behind flammable water in taps on America's east coast.

And the numerous items that didn't quite make it onto Newsnight, but needed telling, like interviews with relatives of Alan Turing - before the surprise official apology from the government over the way their computer pioneer uncle had been treated.

I'll miss all that, Susan

More patients at risk from CJD after surgery

Susan Watts | 19:00 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Two separate incidents have emerged in which patients have been told they were put at risk of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

In both cases the fatal brain-wasting disease could have been picked up during surgery.

At Queen's Hospital in Romford in Essex, 21 brain surgery patients have received letters.

A further 38 patients in Wales were told on Saturday they had been put at risk.

Self employed builder, Paul Davey who attended the hospital in Romford said: "Worry just runs away with you doesn't it, the what ifs, there's no treatment, no cures, so if it comes - that's it.

"When you show people the letter... well its like well it's only a small chance, but imagine if your name was on the letter. It's alright when it's someone else's name."

Mr Davey received a letter from his hospital telling him that the mother of a patient who had an operation in the same operating theatre had developed an inherited form of CJD.

That patient had then been tested, and found to be carrying a gene that meant she too could go on to develop the disease.

The letter said his risk was thought to be extremely small, but that he should protect public health by not donating blood, organs or tissues.

"If the chances were that small why did they send the letter? I'd be better not knowing. You can't tell someone that they can't give blood or visit a dentist and then tell them it's not serious," Mr Davey told the BBC's Newsnight programme.

The other incident was at a hospital in Wales. In this case, Public Health Wales is not revealing the name of the hospital, nor the type of surgery involved.

In both situations, the hospitals say they followed normal practices to clean, disinfect and sterilise the surgical instruments involved.

One of the UK's leading experts on prion diseases, Professor John Collinge, said such incidents are not uncommon.

He said the risk to patients from contaminated surgical instruments was believed to be small but is not yet quantified. He thought more could be done to stop this happening at all.

His team has developed an effective prion deactivation soak, a bit like a biological washing powder, and even has a commercial partner, but the substance is not being used in hospitals.

"I am surprised this hasn't been picked up," Prof Collinge told Newsnight. "It's concerning as a clinician to hear that patients are continuing to be notified they might have been exposed to contaminated instruments when we thought several years ago this problem was solved...

"Clearly it takes time to change practice in hospitals but I am concerned this hasn't been taken up more speedily."

Conservative MP, Sir Paul Beresford, is seeking an adjournment debate on the issue on Wednesday. He is concerned about a lack of action by the Department of Health and whether worries about extra cost might explain why these technologies were not in use.

"I think if the hospitals were under pressure and the cleaner was provided at a commercially viable cost - which I think would be low if they had a huge market ie every single hospital in the country - then the costs would be lower.

"The other side of cost is prevention - prevention of having these absolutely mortified people getting these horrendous notices saying they are at risk.

"I want the DoH to go back to the commercial firms and give them the light to go ahead by explaining to them that they intend them to have the commercial market - that will inspire them to do the final tests and changes to make it more viable for the hospitals to use."

CJD is one of a group of so-called prion diseases. Unlike viruses and bacteria, prions are extremely hardy, and cannot be destroyed by normal decontamination methods, such as autoclaving of surgical instruments.

Newsnight has discovered that in the aftermath of the BSE, or "mad cow", incident in the UK, several research teams produced prion deactivation techniques.

The human form of BSE, or variant CJD, is another of these prion diseases. The research groups had even teamed up with commercial companies, keen to develop these decontamination products.

Professor Collinge's team worked with Dupont. Another was a spin out from Edinburgh University, and a third emerged from the government-sponsored Health Protection Agency (HPA). But all three products seem to have quietly disappeared before they could be proved in a hospital setting.

Edinburgh University told Newsnight: "It is believed that end users would only be prepared to adopt (our method) if legally required to do so."

The HPA said there was "no incentive for hospitals to use it. We did the research and development, but we don't set the policy". They referred us to the Department of Health.

Professor Collinge added: "The DoH doesn't now give central diktats to NHS trusts... it is frustrating things don't seem to be joined up.

"We spend a lot of money on ensuring bloods are safe as possible in this country but we seem to be doing relatively little with surgical instruments, and that doesn't seem entirely logical."

The DoH said technologies to improve hospital infection control go to its Rapid Review Panel (RRP).

The product from Professor Collinge's group was deemed to have potential, but he was told that more work was needed in a clinical setting.

The company was given advice on how to improve the application in September 2010 and it's now up to the manufacturer to decide whether to take it further.

Dupont says it made a business decision to withdraw its prion deactivator some time ago, and doesn't want to comment further.

Some sad news and a question on algae...

Susan Watts | 13:12 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

Harry Hart, an original thinker on making better use of algae - to re-claim desert land as a source of food or fuel, and to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - has died.

His funeral is today.

Harry was in touch with the BBC for many years, and Newsnight interviewed him back in 2008, when we were working on a film on novel technologies for capturing carbon. You can see the website interview with Harry and Newsnight film here.

Harry had a colourful life. He worked as a television cameraman, filming some of the most notable events and people of the last century, including Mother Teresa when she was relatively unknown and the World Cup of 1966.

After filming the UK nuclear tests in the Monte Bello Islands in Australia and seeing fellow crew members apparently suffer from what they believed to be radiation poisoning, Harry became interested in unconventional ideas on nutrition.

His view of the world, and our use of resources, began to change when he filmed a documentary called One Man's Hunger on poverty in northern India. He saw great promise in growing algae as a source of food, and many mainstream scientists now agree with him.

One group, the FREdome Visionary Trust based in Hertfordshire, is securing start-up funding for a demonstration project along the lines of Harry's thinking.

This uses sewage waste - sent by tanker to arid coastlines, instead of being dumped at sea - to reclaim land and grow algae and other crops as a source of food, fuel and fertiliser, as well as trees to create the required moist microclimate.

The founder of the project, Greg Peachey, has been invited by the Arab Water Forum to talk on desert reclamation at their annual congress later this year.

Harry spent much of his time building up a substantial store of 35 years worth of research materials on this subject, now stored in a barn in Suffolk.

This archive is looking for a home, without which the material it contains will most likely be destroyed. Anyone interested?

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