This week’s Health Wrap is compiled by my colleague Megan Howe, the Sax Institute’s Publications Manager. Enjoy the Wrap and tweet us via @medicalmedia or @meghowe68 if you have any ideas for future issues.

By Megan Howe

Life’s good….for some

To start the Health Wrap on a bright note, Australians are pretty satisfied with their lives, according to new data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that show Australians rate their overall life satisfaction as 7.6 out of 10 – higher than the OECD average of 6.6. However, they are also feeling rushed, volunteering less and not playing as much sport as previously, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The satisfaction findings came in the wake of a report from the Australian Council of Social Services highlighting widening income and wealth inequities in Australia ‒ a situation that it warned posed a risk to the nation’s collective health, as detailed on Croakey. The Guardian revealed the gap is most extreme in Sydney, which has the highest poverty rate of any capital city in Australia, according to a report from the Council of Social Service NSW.


Speaking out on asylum seeker health

News on how asylum seekers in detention centres are faring is set to be further restricted, with new laws coming into force that could see detention centre staff jailed for speaking out about abuses. Social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and humanitarian staff who have worked inside Australia’s detention centres united in a show of defiance against the laws, The Guardian reported.

On 1 July, the day the Australian Border Force Act 2015 became law, more than 40 former detention centre staff signed an open letter stating:  “We have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for the health of those for whom we have a duty of care, despite the threats of imprisonment, because standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable”.

The laws were enacted despite Australia’s peak health professional bodies voicing collective concern about the “appalling secrecy provisions” in the laws. As detailed on Croakey, their joint statement released on World Refugee Day calling for urgent amendments to the Act fell on deaf ears.


Federalism paper sparks health funding row

Meanwhile in Canberra, the ever-contentious issue of the federal/state funding divide was again making headlines, after a steady flow of leaks from the Federal Government’s federalism reform discussion paper, including the suggestion that the feds could pull $18 billion of public hospital funding from the states, leaving them to fully fund public hospitals, as revealed in the Australian Financial Review (paywall).

The states hit back, with Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, damning both the leak and the proposal as unacceptable. Prime Minister Tony Abbott played down the proposal and called for a “mature debate on the future of health system funding”, as reported on 9News.

After successive leaks of the paper’s proposals on both education and health funding, the Government eventually made the discussion paper public – at which point media interest in it appeared to wane (although Croakey did cover the five options for health reform here).

But federal health funding is never far from the spotlight, and the loss of funding for an obesity prevention collaboration was revealed as the first in what is expected to be a long list of casualties from the Federal Budget’s $800 million in cuts to Health Flexible Funds.  The Collaboration of Community-based Obesity Prevention Sites (CO-OPS Collaboration closed its doors on Tuesday, after having received a letter on Friday evening that their funding would cease on June 30, AAP reported.

Its closure prompted PHAA CEO Michael Moore to warn on Croakey that the cuts “have the capacity to decimate NGO responses to key public health issues across the nation.”

The National Perinatal Depression Initiative also fell victim to the funding cuts, ABC’s 7.30 revealed, with the Federal Government refusing to extend a five-year funding agreement with the states that has seen thousands of new parents access screening and counselling services aimed at identifying and treating the illness in the early stages.

In NSW, the State Budget gave a boost to some health services, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that nearly $20 billion would be tipped into public hospitals, mental health services and medical research. But Council of Social Service of NSW chief executive Tracy Howe said the NSW Government the $2.5 billion surplus next financial year could be spent on those most in need, including people facing domestic violence or struggling with a disability.

And one of the Federal Government’s flagship health reforms pledged in the last election ‒ to replace Medicare Locals with 31 new Primary Health Networks, hit a snag, ABC revealed.  The new networks came into operation on 1 July, but have been warned not to use the name  “primary health network” in any marketing or branding materials without independent legal advice, as the Department faces a Federal Court battle against corporate GP giant Primary Health Care over trademarking of the term.


Medical miracle for melanoma

There was broad media coverage of Health Minister Sussan Ley’s announcement that the “breakthrough” melanoma drug Keytruda would be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from September at a cost of $57 million.  ABC News reported that Australians would be among the first in the world to get access the revolutionary drug, which will be available to 1100 patients at cost of just $38, compared to $150,000 a year. And The Sydney Morning Herald said a crusade by property developer and former Liberal Party president Ron Walker to get the drug on the PBS had been successful. Mr Walker, who travelled abroad for treatment with Keytruda, credits the drug with halting the deadly spread of melanoma through his body.

Ken Frazier, global chief of the drugs’ developer Merck, told the Australian Financial Review (paywall) that the government was overpaying for older drugs, which constrained its ability to quickly introduce new medicines such as Keytruda.


Dealing with drugs

Whether or not medicinal cannabis could prove another wonder drug will depend on rigorous scientific research, according to AMA NSW President Dr Saxon Smith who gave his backing to moves to conduct more research on the drug’s therapeutic properties in a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The news on other drugs wasn’t so positive.

Queensland independent MP Billy Gordon demanded the state government ramp up effor­ts to stem the spread of ice across Queensland’s Aboriginal communities, according to The Australian (Paywall). “Forget native title, forget employm­ent — the single biggest issue that I am worried about in communities is mental health and if ice really spreads then it will be devastating,” he told the paper.

Professor Sandra Jones, Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at Australian Catholic University warned in a piece on The Conversation that the national focus on illicit drugs like ice was taking the spotlight away from the harms of excessive alcohol use, which is actually a bigger problem in Australia.

The Federal Government won’t enforce a national ban on powdered alcohol, which was banned in Victoria from this month over concerns about its misuse and abuse, The Age reported. The product, to which water is added to make a standard drink, is not yet available in Australia but has approval in the US.


Lighting up tensions

A riot at a Melbourne remand centre which saw five inmates injured was attributed to the imminent introduction of a cigarette ban, which came into force on 1 July across Victoria’s 13 prisons, The Age reported. The state’s Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard said the department had spent 18 months planning for the ban, during which time smoking within the prison population had dropped from about 80 per cent to 20 per cent.

NSW will follow suit with a smoking ban due to come into effect in the state’s jails on 10 August. ABC News reported that the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner has asked Victorian prison authorities for an urgent briefing on the Melbourne riot ahead of the move. Prison bosses in NSW have been given repeated warnings that the smoking ban, combined with crammed prison cells and poor living conditions, may spark a riot similar to events in Victoria, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

But it seems Western Australia is unlikely to go down the same path, with WA Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis, saying he was “not sold” on a total smoking ban in WA prisons, and likening the availability of nicotine in jail to a management tool. “If you want to change someone’s behaviour, you need something to reward them with. You can tell them to ‘go have a smoke’ if they behave or comply,” he told WA Today. “And it’s something to take off them if they don’t do the right thing – it’s the carrot and stick approach.”

In an opinion piece on ABC’s The Drum, Jeff Sparrow suggested that the smoking crackdown was perhaps not the top health priority in a prison system plagued by overcrowding, rapes and bashing, but writing on The Conversation, Sharon Lawn, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Flinders University, South Australia, outlined the evidence showing why banning smoking in prisons is a good idea.


Indigenous health 

It was revealed in The Australian (paywall) that the Federal Department of Health has given the Aboriginal Medical Service, Western Sydney, notice of imminent loss of funding amid concerns about its mounting debt and delivery standards. Writing on Croakey, Patricia Delaney, a longstanding Aboriginal health advocate and policy advisor who helped set up the service, said its closure would have wide-ranging devastating impacts.

Australia’s only sexual assault network specifically for Aboriginal women, Hey Sis, We’ve Got Your Back, is also facing closure, after running out of money, ABC News reported. The program relies on private donations, which have dried up.

And the Aboriginal Legal Service said it would continue to fight for federal funding to pay for a 24-hour phone line which connects Aboriginal people in custody to lawyers. There have been no Aboriginal deaths in police custody in NSW and the ACT since the Custody Notification Service started in 2000, but federal funding for the service has ceased and its future is uncertain.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda told the inquiry into the Federal Government’s Indigenous advancement strategy tender process that while the government was focusing on preventing Aboriginal people wasting money, Aboriginal people were more concerned with staying alive.  As reported in The Guardian, he said “There’s two types of risk being managed here. The government is trying to manage the risk of Aboriginal people … wasting money, [while] Aboriginal people are trying to manage the risk of dying early. Until there is some kind of coming together of that risk, I think we’re still going to have this mismatch of how things go”.


Hot topic

Tackling climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century, a team of 60 international experts declared in a special report for The Lancet medical journal.  As highlighted on The Conversation, the report outlines many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change that can directly reduce the burden of ill health, boost community resilience, and lessen poverty and inequity.

The report was published as the death toll from the worst heatwave to hit Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi for nearly 35 years surpassed 1000, and morgues ran out of space. In the UK, public health warnings were issued about heatwave conditions, as Britain experienced its warmest July day on record.


No mercy in MERS in measures

As the first cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome were diagnosed in Thailand, efforts to contain the virus heightened. The Thailand Ministry of Public Health was set to enforce laws to punish those who spread false news about MERS infection in the country, and South Korea introduced a new law designed to curb the outbreak, tightening quarantine restrictions and imposing jail sentences on those who defy anti-infection measures following the death of 31 people from the disease there, ABC news reported.

The risk the virus posed to Australia was explained by the ABC as being “the same as it was during the Ebola outbreak – from a traveler bringing the infection into the country”.

But North Korea thinks it has the answer to more than MERS. It claimed it had developed a vaccine called Kumdang-2 that could cure and prevent not only MERS, but Ebola, AIDS, and a host of other diseases ranging from cancer to morning sickness to “harm from the use of computers”, according to its state news agency KCNA.

The battle against Ebola in West Africa continues, with two new cases recorded in the Sierra Leone Capital Freetown, weeks after the city was thought to be free of the disease, and a 17-year-old dying from Ebola in Liberia, one of two new cases recorded in country since was declared free of Ebola in May.

On the research front, a new fingerprick test has been developed to be given at the patient’s bedside and could predict Ebola infection within minutes, representing a significant improvement in diagnosing the disease,  The Conversation reported.

There was one significant win in the war against against infectious disease this week, with Cuba successfully eliminating mother-to-child transmission of both HIV and syphilis, BBC News revealed. Head of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, described it as one of the greatest public health achievements possible.


Access to abortion

Women in developed countries around the world still face serious accessibility issues when it comes to first-trimester abortion, including access to appropriately trained clinicians, appropriate equipment and medication, and timely access to services, a new study has found. Medpage Today reported on the review published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health that concluded abortion services were seen as slightly marginalised, and did not get the same priority as other elective procedures ‒ probably due to the social and political stigma around them.

The study was published as a Dutch women’s rights group used a drone to fly abortion pills into Poland, in protest at the country’s restrictive laws around abortion, BBC News reported.

And in the US, the Supreme Court stepped in to postpone reproductive-rights restrictions that would have left the vast state of Texas with fewer than 10 abortion clinics.


Fashion and news victims

Finally, it was hard to avoid the story about an Adelaide woman whose skinny jeans cut off blood supply to her legs, resulting in her needing hospital treatment, as detailed in the BMJ Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

As highlighted by US health news watchdog, HealthNewsRevew, the single case study about one woman’s medical condition was far from the most significant medical news of the week, but the “fashion victim” headlines saw it reported worldwide, with stories appearing everywhere from Adelaide ABC’s interview with the treating neurologist to Time Magazine (Here’s how skinny jeans are hurting your health) to the BBC , CBS News, the LA Times and the Washington Post.

Other Croakey reading you may have missed this fortnight:



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