It’s with pleasure I introduce this week’s Health Wrap from my colleague Megan Howe, who recently joined the Sax Institute as Publications Manager.

Megan knows more than a thing or two about health reporting – she has worked in the media for 25 years, most recently as co-editor at the GP publication Australian Doctor and has also covered health for major metropolitan newspapers. Enjoy this week’s Health Wrap.

By Megan Howe

The vexed issue of antivaxxers

The federal government’s announcement that it is set to close vaccination loopholes, meaning parents who don’t have their children vaccinated are denied family tax and childcare benefits, sparked much debate.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the parents of four-week-old baby Riley Hughes, who died of whooping cough last month before he could be vaccinated, had welcomed the government’s move to close the loophole for vaccine refusers. The newspaper also described the announcement as “a major win for News Corp Australia after a two year ‘No Jab, No Play’ campaign by The Sunday Telegraph”.

But the Sydney Morning Herald reported that experts believed the plan would not have a meaningful impact, while a comment piece in the Guardian suggested the new rules infringed on parental rights. Canberra Times columnist Jenna Price declared the antivax battle plan was “all wrong”, and the Age told the story of a Canadian mother who reversed her antivaccination stance after her seven children contracted whooping cough.

The story moved on with Health Minister Sussan Ley announcing that a government-funded public awareness campaign would help counter some “crackpot ideas” about vaccination, as reported in the Guardian, including a “no jab no pay” bonus for GPs to keep children’s vaccinations up to date.

The Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network has responded to the government’s plans by likening vaccinations to rape in a graphic image on its Facebook page, drawing condemnation even from some its own supporters, the Age reports.

And the Australian reported (paywall) that researchers have yet again ruled out a link between vaccination and autism in a massive study that suggests immunisation may actually reduce the risk.

Meanwhile, the Brisbane Times reported that “a cruel hoax was being played on one of the nation’s favourite sons” – HPV vaccine pioneer Professor Ian Frazer. Sham collectors were knocking on doors, telling stories and pleading for funds to keep Professor Frazer in Australia.


Medicare musings

The funding of health services remains firmly in the spotlight, after the federal government announced a wide-ranging review of all 5500 medical services funded under Medicare, as well as a separate review of care and funding models, and a crackdown on abuse of Medicare by unscrupulous practitioners, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Daily Telegraph said the review could result in a new way of paying the doctor to care for patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and arthritis, and the Australian reported (paywall) that doctors would be enticed to help the Abbott Government find new Medicare savings if they wanted a freeze on rebates lifted.

The announcement of the review followed the publication of an opinion piece by opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King in the Guardian, in which she said any review of Medicare benefits should be an act of reform, not saving for savings’ sake.

Hospital funding has also been making headlines, with the Australian Medical Association’s annual report card on the public hospital system’s performance warning that federal budget cuts would open up a multi-billion dollar black hole for hospitals – a claim denied by the Health Minister.

Meanwhile, another major reform is about to come to fruition in primary care  – the shift from Medicare Locals to the new Primary Health Networks on 1 July. ABC News reported that private health insurers were set to win a prized stake in GP care, following the announcement of the consortiums, which have won tenders to run the new networks. Leanne Wells, CEO of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia, outlined the challenges and priorities faced by the PHNs on Croakey.

In an article entitled “How we’ve ended up with a bankrupt health debate”, Croakey republished an editorial from the National Rural Health Alliance’s latest Partyline magazine, in which Alliance CEO Gordon Gregory outlined 12 questions for consideration in the current health policy context.


Meeting mental health needs

The long-delayed report from the National Mental Health Commission’s review of mental health programs and services was finally released by the federal government after the ABC’s 7.30 leaked a section of the report and Croakey posted the full four volumes of the review.

Debate ensued over the report’s recommendation that more than $1 billion in funding be redirected from acute hospital care to community-based services, a move that Health Minister Sussan Ley ruled out, according to ABC News. Writing on The Conversation, Professor Philip Mitchell, head of the school of psychiatry at UNSW, argued that mental health services need more money, not a reshuffle.

John Mendoza, the chief advisor on mental health to the former Labor government, writing on Croakey, criticised the government’s move to establish further advisory committees and consultation in response to the review, urging it to act immediately to make the recommended changes. Also on Croakey, Professor Allan Fels, Chair of the National Mental Health Commission, concurred that it was time for action and warned potential barriers must not be allowed to hijack the process.


Weighty issues

A new study that found doctors are not checking most patients’ weight was covered by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Conversation, which revealed new competency standards had been outlining the expected level of nutrition knowledge and skills to be developed during medical training.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a warning by the Obesity Policy Coalition that lunch box fruit drinks have more sugar than Coca-Cola, and The Australian reported (paywall) that doctors were demanding a ban on fast food outlets near schools to beat obesity.

In an article in the Courier Mail, AMA Queensland President Dr Shaun Rudd said he wanted to see bariatric surgery procedures − including gastric banding and gastric sleeves − offered free to morbidly obese people.

The debate over whether food, sedentary lifestyles or both are responsible for the obesity epidemic was reopened by doctors writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, who claimed being dangerously overweight was all down to bad diet rather than a lack of exercise, the Guardian reported.

And in a little bit of good news for those carrying some extra weight, the BBC reported on a UK study that found being overweight cut the risk of dementia, while underweight people faced the highest risk.


Measuring poverty

More than a million Australians are living in poverty, according to a report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, which calls for a radical policy shake-up to deal with this national “disgrace”.

The report, Addressing entrenched disadvantage in Australia, found that those who have a high risk of falling into long-term poverty include people who do not finish high school, Indigenous Australians, those over 65, those with a long-term health problem or disability and those who live in a jobless household, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

And moving globally, The Guardian reported that hundreds of millions more people could be living in extreme poverty than official estimates suggest, according The data revolution: finding the missing millions, a report published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which warns that poorer countries have no way to adequately measure their progress in areas such as poverty, health and education.


Research rights and wrongs

Warwick Anderson, outgoing head of the NHMRC, said supporting medical research was an investment with an excellent return, but much more could be done to increase its value. He outlined six challenges facing Australia’s medical research sector in an address to the National Press Club, as detailed on The Conversation. The Australian reported (paywall) that Mr Anderson also called for alternative medicines to be exposed to the same onerous clinical trial requirements that apply to pharmaceuticals.

The World Health Organization was also focusing on medical research, issuing a public statement calling for the disclosure of results from clinical trials for medical products, whatever the result, as reported on News Medical.


Modern medicine

Doctors have hailed the results of a new study that shows more patients with advanced melanoma lived longer and had fewer side effects when given a new drug compared with those on standard treatment, the ABC reports.

Also in medical research news, we learnt that fish oil doesn’t protect against heart disease and that a possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease has been uncovered.

A rapid flu diagnosis kit could see the virus detected in just five minutes and the manufacturer of frozen berries at the centre of a recent hepatitis scare has found no evidence of the hepatitis A virus or E coli in samples of frozen berries it tested.

The Wall Street Journal reported on a puzzling rise in myopia – or near-sightedness – in children, which has eye researchers trying preventive strategies including more outdoor time, medication and even a giant translucent cube.


Around the nation

There’s been a spike in complaints against ACT doctors, according to the Canberra Times, which also reported that ACT Health was trying to address long waits for appointments at vaccination clinics in north Canberra.

In WA, private company Serco was stripped of providing sterilisation services for Fiona Stanley Hospital after ongoing bungles, WA Today reported. And commercial sunbeds will be banned in WA from 1 January 2016, following the lead of other states and territories.

An independent health analyst has warned that Tasmania’s health system is underfunded to the tune of $500 million, ABC News reported, and Adelaide Now reported on a coronial inquest at which a country GP apologised to the family of a young mother who died after being sent home from hospital, admitting he made a fatal mistake.

Finally, disgraced health blogger Belle Gibson, developer of popular app The Whole Pantry, has admitted in an interview with the Australian Woman’s Weekly that she deceived her followers, friends and family about having cancer and curing her illness with healthy eating and natural therapies.

Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:


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