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Duncan Selbie's Friday message – 24 March 2017

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Dear everyone

The event in central London on Wednesday reminded us of the bravery and responsiveness of our emergency services and our thoughts are with all those affected.

Professor David Heymann, Chair of PHE, convened his final board meeting this week as he comes to the end of his term of office. Fittingly, the Board met at what will be PHE Harlow, our future home for our science and headquarters. We received presentations from a range of contributors reflecting on our first four years, including Dr Isabel Oliver on field epidemiology, Professor Peter Bradley and Jake Abbas on the local knowledge and intelligence service, Professor Paul Cosford on Ebola and Dr Liz Ainsbury on the effects of radiation on the eye. Each of them spoke to the science underpinning their work and the practical impact of this, often world-leading practice.

We are indebted to David for his leadership during our most formative years, both at home and internationally, and we will miss him hugely. He has, however, ensured that we have a formidable foundation on which to further build and that we do so with strength and confidence.

Today is World TB Day. In England we have seen tuberculosis (TB) cases drop by a third over the past four years, and although the numbers remain significant, there is every reason to believe that we can achieve our goal of removing TB as a public health problem.

One of the major developments has been the use of whole genome sequencing (WGS) to identify different strains of TB faster and more accurately – the first time that WGS has been used to diagnose and manage a disease on this scale anywhere in the world. This technique, developed by PHE and the University of Oxford and organised from our Birmingham laboratory, means patients can be treated with precisely the right medication more quickly, slowing the spread of the disease and reducing the prevalence of drug-resistant TB and hospital care costs. We are immensely proud of the contribution this makes to the prospects of better treatment of TB globally and our ambition is to use this approach for many other infectious diseases.

The UK has the lowest number of breastfeeding mothers in the world. While almost 75% of women start breastfeeding when their child is born, only 44% continue beyond 8 weeks. We recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, in line with guidance from the World Health Organization, and evidence shows that the right support helps mums to breastfeed for longer. On Thursday Start4Life, our programme to support parents-to-be and new parents to adopt healthy behaviours, launched a new interactive Facebook messenger ChatBot, Breastfeeding Friend (BFF), offering personal support at any time of the day or night. This should contribute to providing the advice and information that parents tell us would be helpful and complements ongoing support from midwifery teams and health visitors.

The effects of new psychoactive substances (NPS) can be dangerous and unpredictable, causing serious problems to both mental and physical health. There is now evidence of widespread use of NPS – or legal highs – among vulnerable adults such as prisoners and homeless people, and while specialist services are responding, the harms are often poorly understood, with little guidance available.

On Wednesday, PHE and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) began piloting a new national system to help record and monitor the harmful effects of NPS, allowing experts to analyse the information and identify patterns of symptoms and harms.  We encourage all frontline staff in emergency departments, sexual health clinics, prisons, drug and mental health services to use the system, which over time will greatly increase our knowledge of these new substances and ultimately improve patient care.

On Monday, Dr Shabana Haque, Head of the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) Profession Team at the Government Office for Science, gave a presentation to our scientists about the Government Science and Engineering profession strategy, published in October. This strategy is particularly relevant for many of our staff who apply scientific methodology and knowledge to help secure the resilience, wellbeing, health and security of people in the UK.

It describes how we can all work to raise the profile of the wide range of professions that come under the GSE umbrella within PHE and across Government, and ensure satisfying career paths and professional development opportunities are available at every role or grade. From fighting Ebola to pioneering new bio-pharmaceutical drugs, science has never been more important to public life and ensuring that we are able to attract and retain the best skills and expertise is of fundamental importance to PHE.

With best wishes,

Friday messages from 2012-2016 are available on GOV.UK

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