MIL-OSI UK: Blair concerned provisions not in place for local Electoral Office closure

Source: Alliance – Northern Ireland

Blair concerned provisions not in place for local Electoral Office closure

January 4, 2019 10:18 AM

Alliance South Antrim MLA John Blair has said he is “extremely concerned” about the immediate closure of the Newtownabbey Electoral Office, set to take effect from Monday, January 7th.

The office, located on Portland Avenue, Glengormley, is the latest in a round of closures the Electoral Office NI has been making, it says due to the increase in online usage.

John said: “I understand the Electoral Office must reflect on what and how its future service should look like, however, what concerns me here is the perceived lack of public correspondence to date.

“At the very least there should have been more public notice than the three working days prior notice published on a website at the tail end of a holiday period.

“The Electoral Office NI published response to the consultation on future services makes reference to discussions with local councils regarding these future services. As far as I can see there is no evidence that this has either progressed, or that consideration has already been given to the allocated resources required – especially if the cost will fall to ratepayers.

“And while we can all recognise the need to modernise in the digital age, thought must also be given to the more remote and rural areas, where broadband reception is poor.

“These are just a few of the issues I’ll be following up on, ensuring local people know how and where they can best access the services open to them.”

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Alliance welcomes support for position on Robinson Centre renaming

Source: Alliance – Northern Ireland

Alliance welcomes support for position on Robinson Centre renaming

January 4, 2019 10:17 AM

Alliance Councillor Michael Long has welcomed the support from the SDLP and Sinn Féin to have the new East Belfast leisure centre renamed when it opens later this year.

Councillor Long – Alliance Group leader on Belfast City Council – said that while Alliance had always opposed the “various Peter Robinson vanity projects” it the old Castlereagh Council, he was surprised it had taken over four years for Sinn Féin to raise the naming issue, likening it to a pre-election stunt.

He said: “It was my colleagues who opposed the original proposal to change the name from Castlereagh Swimming Pool to the Robinson Centre in the 1980s. We also opposed other proposals such as the awarding of the Freedom of the Borough to Mr. Robinson, which resulted in thousands of pounds of ratepayers money being spent on a celebratory dinner, and £4,000 spent on a bronze bust of the former Councillor.

“From our point of view, it was always going to be necessary for a renaming but I am puzzled by the timing of this motion from Sinn Féin given that the centre has been in the ownership of Belfast City Council for over four years and no decision is required in respect of the name until the autumn, when the centre is due to reopen.

“The fact that Sinn Féin has decided to raise the matter now looks like more of a pre-election stunt and an attempt to deflect attention from the main focus of Monday night which will see Sinn Féin and the DUP working together to increase the rates by £500,000 on bonfire related activities.

“I would also suggest that both their track record and that of the SDLP on naming public spaces is hardly one to follow given the ongoing debacle over Raymond McCreesh park in Newry.

“I think the best way forward would be to use a local place name, but I also believe that most people are more concerned that they have been deprived of decent leisure facilities for almost five years- something which we sought to address through the provision of temporary facilities which Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Unionists all opposed.”

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: expert reaction to study on depression and social media

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

Research published in EClinicalMedicine highlights potential issues with greater social media use in relation to young people’s mental health.

Prof Peter Fonagy, Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, said:

“This study, like many others over recent years, highlights a strong association between screen-time and symptoms of depression and the careful analysis of potential mediators offers intriguing potential explanatory hypotheses. However, the study does not investigate activities which are known to be important in promoting wellbeing, but are constrained by absorption in social media: in particular, mutually enjoyable shared activity with parents. Thus, in addition to drawing attention to the impact of social media use on adolescent wellbeing, we should also look at its negative impact on factors that have the potential to promote wellbeing such as family activities.”

Prof Andrew Przybylski, Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said:

“In this study the researchers draw on data from the Millennial Cohort Study to investigate the correlations between self-reported social media time and a range of indicators of psychological experience and behaviour. The study has a number of notable strengths including the use of very high quality self-report data, good use of control variables, and a relatively circumspect tone for what is typically an over-hyped research area. With this understood the paper goes well beyond the data where it makes direct policy recommendations on the basis of correlational data.

“First and foremost, the data are entirely based on self-reporting. With large sample sizes we would expect most variables to modestly correlate with one another (as they do in this paper). The authors should be credited for noting this as a limitation (few do).  That said, results from similar studies such as those conducted by NHS Digital suggest that high levels of social media use might be understood as a consequence, not cause, of low psychological well-being. This much simpler explanation for the correlation, that social media use is a symptom, for the pattern of findings is not seriously considered by the authors.

“Second, a very large number of statistical tests are performed because of analytic decisions taken by the researchers. For example, splitting the sample by gender, looking at a host of outcome variables, and by comparing multiple levels of social media use instead of using a more conservative statistical approach. Because the analyses are exploratory this means a number of the findings might be false positives as the analyses did not correct for multiple tests. This means that many of the comparisons, such correlations between high vs. low social media use might be spurious. Some causal language is used by the authors in how they describe these comparisons – that is not backed up by the data here, and readers could get the wrong impression if they take from this that we know one thing causes the other (we don’t).”

“Finally, and most importantly, the correlations between social media use and indicators of low psychological well-being are indirect. Other factors the authors include such as low levels of sleep, low self-esteem, harassment, and low body image explain most of these relationships. Further, the correlations between psychological well-being and these factors are far stronger than the links between any of these and social media. Because social media is so weakly correlated with either these factors or well-being I’m left to wonder about the wisdom of making social media use the focus of policy. Given social media is by far the least important factor in the central model; why not address sleep, self-esteem, harassment, and body image directly?”

Dr Dennis Ougrin, Clinical Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“This is not the first paper showing an association between heavy social media use and poor mental health. Although this type of study cannot prove unequivocally that heavy social media use causes poor mental health, it is still of great importance as another piece of much needed evidence pointing in the same direction. Together with other studies, it highlights possible mechanisms of the association. Of these mechanisms, perhaps the most striking is the impact of social media use on sleep, which is incredibly important for good mental health. Another important contribution of this study is demonstrating that the association is stronger in girls. This finding complements recent surveys showing an increase in the prevalence of emotional disorders in girls.”

Professor Stephen Scott, Director of the National Academy for Parenting Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, and Head of the National Conduct Problems & National Adoption and Fostering Services at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“This cross-sectional study takes data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) of over 10,000 14-year-olds. This study was well carried out with a very large sample, good measures and appropriate analyses, although controlling for parental education would have been helpful. After controlling for family income and other confounders including single-parent families, it still finds an association between increased use of social media and low mood. Some of the effect was due to online harassment, dissatisfaction with body shape, and worse sleep. These are important findings which need to be taken seriously.

“Inevitably there is the chicken and egg question, as to whether more dissatisfied children, who to begin with are less pleased with their body shape and have fewer friends then spend more time on social media. Nonetheless, it is likely that excessive use of social media (and one third of children in lone parent families or in the poorest income group reported using social media for 5 hours or more a day, a huge amount of time) does lead to poorer confidence and mental health.

“To establish the facts, a randomised controlled trial would be almost impossible to carry out, but it would be possible to look at individuals over time and see if there are spontaneous variations between their usage of social media and well-being. It would also be possible to carry out experiments where usage is cut down, but then constructive alternative use of time would need to be strongly supported.”

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Regius Chair of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, said:

“It is established that the rates of anxiety and depression have increased in recent years in young people. It is also established that this is particularly true for young women between 16 and 24.  The reasons for this are unclear, but many people assume that this must be due to increased access to social media. However, there have been two problems with this. First, why does it predominantly affect young women? Second, how can one be sure that this cause and effect – in other words, it could be that depressed or anxious young people are more likely to use social media, rather than the other way round. This study takes us further forward in understanding the gender effect – which they find to be mediated by poor sleep, online harassment, body image issues and self-esteem.  But because it is largely cross sectional, they still cannot definitely say that social media usage causes poor mental health, although the evidence is starting to point in that direction.”

Dr Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Surrey, said:

“The paper reports on the findings from a large scale cohort study of 14 years olds in the UK, exploring their use of social media and mental health. Results demonstrate a clear association between time spent on social media and symptoms of depression (it’s important to note that the study reports symptoms rather than a clinical diagnosis of depression), however as this was a cross sectional study it does not provide any evidence that social media use is the cause of the observed symptoms of depression. It was a well-designed study with almost 11000 participants, providing a representative sample of adolescents, and giving confidence on the reliability of the data and the findings.

“The associated press release presents a snapshot of the key findings of the study – that there is an association between social media use and depression, and that girls are more affected by this than boys. The study found that twice as many girls as boys were users of social media (of at least 3 hours per day), and for those using social media for more than 5 hours a day, girls reported twice as many depressive symptoms as boys (in the press release this is presented as the headline finding that “Girls are twice as likely to show signs of depressive symptoms linked to social media use compared to boys at age 14”). While this is correct overall, it does vary considerably depending on the total time engaged with social media – at lower levels of engagement, the difference between girls and boys is markedly lower.

“The press release also suggests that “At home, families may want to reflect on when and where it’s ok to be on social media and agree limits for time spent online. Curfews for use and the overnight removal of mobile devices from bedrooms might also be something to consider.” The evidence presented in the paper does support limiting the time spend on social media (not online as this can encompass a broader range of usage and this was not covered in the data collected). With regard to the “when and where”, this was not something that was reported in the study, and in fact the paucity of data on this is cited as a limitation of the study by the authors themselves in the discussion.

“Overall this is a useful study, adding to the evidence base in this area and supporting the findings of other studies that have linked social media usage and adolescent mental health.”

Prof Naomi Fineberg, Consultant Psychiatrist, Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, Visiting Professor, University of Hertfordshire and Chair of the COST Action group into Problematic Internet Usage, said:

“Studies such as this are important as they continue to indicate an association exists between the use of social media and mental wellbeing in young people. These kinds of cross sectional screening studies cannot by virtue of their design definitively tease out the link, such as attributing causation. Indeed, the relationship is likely to be complex and nuanced. The studies do however call out for investment in research designed to look in detail at the way young people use the internet and its consequences on wellbeing.”

* ‘Social media use and adolescent mental health: findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study’ by Kelly et al. will be published in EClinicalMedicine at 00.01 UK time Friday 4 January 2019, which is also when the embargo will lift. 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/screen-tag/

Declared interests

Dr Andrew Przybylski: “I do not have any interests which might be regarded by a reasonable and objective third party as giving rise to a conflict with my role as an SMC expert in this story.”

Dr Dennis Ougrin: “No COI.”

Professor Sir Simon Wessely: On the board of trustees for the SMC. No other COI to declare.

Professor Stephen Scott: “No COI.”

Dr Bob Patton: “No COI.”

None others received.

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: expert reaction to smokers’ perceptions of vaping

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

Research published in Addiction claims that a large proportion of UK smokers and ex-smokers overestimate the relative harmfulness of e-cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy compared with smoking.

Prof Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said:

“This is an important study with serious implications for public health. Vaping poses only a small fraction of risks of smoking, but over the past few years, we have seen a barrage of misinformation about e-cigarettes that has been persuading smokers that vaping is dangerous and that they should stick to smoking. Some ‘fake news’ are of little importance, but this study shows that fake news on dangers of e-cigarettes did penetrate the public consciousness and are likely to be harming public health. Health organisations and responsible media now face an urgent task to correct this misinformation.”

‘Harm perceptions of e-cigarettes and other nicotine products in a UK sample’ by Samara Wilson et al. was published in Addiction at 00.01 UK time on Friday 4 January 2019.

Declared interests

None to declare.

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: expert reaction to new guidance on children’s screen time

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

Research published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health presents evidence that higher levels of screentime are associated with health harms for children and young people.

Prof Stephen Scott, Director of the National Academy for Parenting Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, and Head of the National Conduct Problems & National Adoption and Fostering Services at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“This review of the actual evidence of the effects of screen time on physical and mental health is welcome.  It finds an association between watching more screen time and being overweight, and feeling down and miserable.  However, the association between playing violent video games and being violent in real life is not discussed, and the main type of screen time reviewed is television, so restricting screen time to this is now relatively out of date in comparison to the use of video games and social media which have become far more prevalent in recent years.  A major concern is it is not clear the extent to which studies control to the confounder of social class, which is strongly associated both with increased use of screens and increased obesity.

“The parent guidelines are sensible insofar as they go, but again do not distinguish between different types of screen time.  The notion that it should stop one hour before bedtime is welcome, but more detail on exactly how to turn off Wi-Fi access and keep smart phones out of the bedroom would help parents.  Likewise it would have been good to have some specific number of hours recommended, e.g. one hour a day doing weekdays, perhaps 2 to 3 hours at weekends, or whatever a family feels comfortable with.  Given that surveys show that many children use screens for 4-6 hours a day this would be quite a reduction in vulnerable groups.”

Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:

“Generally, I like this new guidance on screen time from the RCPCH.  That’s for two reasons.  First, it’s based on evidence.  The research report1 by Stiglic and Viner, published alongside the new guidance, reviews much of the existing evidence on effects of screen time on children and young people, and makes it apparent that it has many shortcomings.  There are good reasons for this.  Research in this area is not easy, for several reasons.  It’s not clear whether just measuring amounts of screen time is an appropriate way to do things anyway.  An hour using a good educational app or doing some research for homework isn’t likely to have the same effect on a child as an hour watching TV with advertisements, let alone an hour on social media possibly being bullied.  An important issue, that Dr Max Davie draws attention to in the press release, is that it’s difficult to determine what causes what in research like this.  Most of the research reviewed by Stiglic and Viner is observational.  So if young people who report more screen use are also more likely to be depressed, that could be because screen use tends to cause depression, or it could be because young people who are depressed anyway tend to spend more time using screens.  It’s difficult or impossible to tell which it is from observational research, but doing non-observational research, where children and young people are allocated to different amounts of screen time by the experimenters, is really challenging to design and carry out.  Most of the research that was reviewed is on TV screen time specifically, but the RCPCH guide points out that most screen time these days is on phones, tablets and computers rather than TV.  The concentration of research on TV use is because much of it was carried out some years ago when television watching was generally a bigger part of young people’s lives.  It’s difficult for the research to keep up with usage patterns when research studies take a long time to carry out but the way people use screens changes quite rapidly.  And it’s hard for researchers to generalise about the effects of cutting down screen time, because they will vary between individuals depending on what alternative ways of using their time are available.

“My second reason for liking the RCPCH guidance is that much of it is based on general ideas and principles of parenting.  That’s backed up by far more experience and, indeed, research than is the case for screen time specifically.  I can’t comment on its statistical aspects, but I’ve been a parent, and the advice to parents does seem admirably sensible and practical.”

‘Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews’ by Neza Stiglic and Russell M Viner will be published in the BMJ Open at 00:01 UK time on Friday 4 January 2019, which is also when the embargo will lift.

‘The health impacts of screen time: a guide for clinicians and parents’ was published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health at 00:01 UK time on Friday 4 January 2019.

Declared interests

Prof Stephen Scott: “No conflicts of interest.”

Prof Kevin McConway: “Kevin McConway is a trustee of the Science Media Centre.”

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Press release: More than 150,000 people benefit from online justice in 2018

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

  • Delivery of reform programme to modernise courts and tribunals underway
  • High satisfaction rates from people using the services
  • Includes divorce applications, money claims and online pleas

The online uptake follows the start of a £1bn investment from the government to bring new technology and modern ways of working to the justice system. This includes a new fully accessible online civil money claims service giving people the ability to make a claim online – with more than 39,000 claims made since its launch in March and satisfaction rates at 89% – and a new system for applying for divorce online, which has cut errors in application forms from 40% to less than 1%.

Public feedback is positive with 85% of people reporting they are happy with the new divorce service, 93% for probate and 89% for civil money claims.

The time taken to complete a divorce application has also reduced by more than half an hour on average.

Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer said:

These online services are already making a difference to people who use the justice system.

As we reach this milestone it’s encouraging to see people are reporting these services work well for them and are a better-fit around their busy lives.

The new services already delivered by HM Courts & Tribunals Service in 2018 include:

  • Divorce Online – more than 23,000 applications have been made since it was launched in April 2018
  • Civil Money Claims Online – more than 39,000 money claims have been made since its launch in March 2018, with the fastest claim being lodged and paid in under two hours
  • Probate Online – more than 7,500 applications have been made since July 2018
  • Submit Your Appeal Online – 3,300 online PIP appeals have been submitted since its launch in July 2018
  • Online pleas – more than 1,400 online pleas have been made within the Single Justice Procedure for Transport for London fare evasion cases since its launch in April 2018

In addition, during 2018 more than 81,000 online pleas have been made for low-level motoring offences via the Make a Plea service first introduced in 2014.

Online services do not replace existing paper-based applications, but provide a quicker, easier route for many people. Each are undergoing further development that will see new functions added to improve public access and efficiency.

The Reform programme has also already delivered:

  • A pilot of fully video hearings in tax tribunals to test the potential for roll-out where appropriate across the courts and tribunals system
  • The national implementation of a new in-court system to record the results of cases digitally and instantly
  • A pilot of a new digital system providing shared case information in criminal cases to the police, CPS, courts service and legal professionals.

Online court reform is an example of how digital transformation is making it quicker and easier for people to interact with government. By 2020, around 100 services will be available digitally.

This is one part of the SmarterGov campaign, which has been launched to drive innovation, savings and public service improvement across government and wider public sector.

Notes to editors:

  • People can make a plea in Welsh using the online platform
  • HMCTS is developing Welsh online language services and Welsh paper-based applications can continue to be used.

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Press release: Foreign Secretary Hunt opens new flagship BT office in Singapore

Source: UK Government

The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt will visit the headquarters of BT Singapore today (4 January) to officially open their new office and see how UK excellence in cyber security is helping businesses and local government secure their operations for the digital age.
While on the tour of the new office, which is home to around 300 staff, the Foreign Secretary will be shown the company’s new ‘Customer Experience Centre’ which provides an interactive experience showcasing global connectivity services, cloud migration as well as world class cyber security services.
The new BT office will be the hub for the British company to deliver its services across South East Asia, providing cyber security solutions and services to private and public sector organisations.
The clients in the region include, a number of Singapore government agencies, major banks and financial service providers, the Singapore Stock Exchange and leading local and global logistics and shipping operators.
Speaking ahead of the opening Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt said:

Cyber security is essential to our national security in the 21st Century and British businesses are making a vital contribution against this global threat. The new BT office in Singapore will enable them to further strengthen their position as a leading player by providing expertise on cyber security solutions to countries and businesses across South East Asia.

James Hennah, Managing Director, BT in South East Asia said:

It is an honour to welcome the Foreign Secretary to open our regional headquarters in Singapore. The new office is home to almost 300 highly skilled staff, supporting our growing list of customers in the region with resilient connectivity, cloud services and world class security.
It builds on our established presence with both networking and cyber operations in the wider Asia Pacific region. Just over a year ago we opened a brand new Cyber Security R&D Centre in Sydney, tapping into local talent to help us alleviate the global cyber skills shortage.

The visit comes after the UK and Singapore signed a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) on Cybersecurity Capacity Building at the Commonwealth Summit in 2018 where the two countries agreed to cooperate to deliver cybersecurity capacity building programmes to Commonwealth Member States for a two-year period.
The UK also committed to participate in Singapore’s ASEAN Cyber Capacity Programme (ACCP), originally launched in 2016. A British cyber security expert will shortly start working in the British High Commission in Singapore to support this initiative, which will involve training and sharing best practice with officials working on cyber security in other ASEAN countries.
During his visit to Singapore on 4 January, the Foreign Secretary will meet Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. He will also discuss with student journalists how to fulfil their role in an age of social media and disinformation.
Further information

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Press release: 10 prisons project gathers pace

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

  • one of a raft of measures to tackle violence and drugs with over £3 million allocated already to 10 of the most challenging prisons
  • part of new approach being piloted to improve standards and security

A new x-ray body scanner has been installed at HMP Leeds as a project to turn around 10 of the most challenging jails gathers pace, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart announced today (Friday 4 January 2019).

The scanner will allow staff to search offenders on an intelligence-led basis for drugs and other contraband concealed inside their bodies. Evidence found on prisoners can be used to support disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.

The scanner will help to break the cycle of violence that is fuelled by drugs and other illegal items, meaning prisoners can start the process of rehabilitation. X-ray scanners at the other jails involved in the ‘10 Prisons Project’ will follow in the coming months.

All 10 prisons have at least 4 metal-detecting wands in place and most of the prisons have trace detection machines that can be used to identify mail that might contain psychoactive substances.

The project was announced in August to tackle the serious problems facing 10 of the most challenging prisons in the country. This was backed up by £10 million of funding.

Other measures implemented so far include:

  • Enhanced leadership and more resources. Each prison now has a number of specialist staff and teams in place, including a drugs strategy manager, additional entry searching staff, and more dog handlers.
  • Changes in the prison environment to improve decency, providing clean and decent sanitation as well as refurbished cells and shared areas.
  • By Christmas, the start of the roll-out of violence reduction training for staff on wings.
  • Nine of the 10 prisons have received a ‘drug diagnostic’ visit to help them understand their drug issues and improve processes and procedures

The work in these prisons will be used as a template for the wider estate and will help to inform priority areas for future investment and development. These 10 prisons are leading the way, with successful interventions being shared widely.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said:

These 10 prisons are setting the way for a new approach, a new ethos and a new direction. I am pleased to see the progress being made, and I thank the governors and staff working tirelessly to improve their prisons.

With enhanced physical security, a drive to improve decency, and more training and support for staff, the prisons are showing what a difference can be made on the wings. Ultimately, this will help to prevent further reoffending and keep the public safe.

The project is part of a wider effort to restore stability to the prison estate. This year the government has announced an additional £70 million investment in safety, security and decency.

This included £16 million to improve conditions for prisoners and staff and £7 million on new security measures, such as security scanners, improved searching techniques, phone-blocking technology and a financial crime unit to target the criminal kingpins operating in prisons.

This has come against a backdrop of rising prison officer numbers, with more than 4,300 now recruited and staffing levels at their highest since 2012.

Notes to editors

  • Geographical groups of prisons in Yorkshire, the north Midlands and London have been selected for the project. The prisons are: Hull, Humber, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, Isis and Wormwood Scrubs.
  • We have allocated £3.3million, with the whole of the initial £10 million due to be spent by the end of this financial year.
  • All 10 prisons now have a Drug Strategy manager, an additional 8 staff for entry searching, 4 extra drug-detection dogs and 2 extra dog handlers.

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Press release: Innovative genomics tool guides response to Lassa fever outbreak

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

For the first time during an ongoing Lassa fever outbreak, scientists have used rapid, portable genomic sequencing technology to identify viruses without prior knowledge of the cause of disease. This enabled researchers to allay fears and direct the public health interventions to limit the spread of the virus and help to protect more people from disease.

The research, conducted during the 2018 Lassa fever epidemic in Nigeria, was carried out by scientists from Public Health England (PHE) (UK), the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) (Germany) and Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) (Nigeria), in collaboration with the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It was published in the journal ‘Science’ on 3 January 2019.

Lassa fever is caused by a virus carried in the urine or faeces of infected rats. The virus causes fever, weakness, muscle pain and seizures, and is frequently fatal. The Lassa virus occurs endemically in West Africa and while it regularly causes small outbreaks, an outbreak of the virus in the area in early 2018 led to 376 confirmed cases within a few months, more than the combined total for the 3 previous years.

The sudden upsurge in cases raised concerns that a new, highly transmissible form of the virus had evolved, able to pass from person to person more effectively than previous strains.

In order to better understand the reasons for the heightened number of cases, the NCDC, together with the WHO, commissioned the research team to analyse patient samples to understand if the virus had an increased transmission potential. The research builds on work that was carried out by PHE and BNITM during the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak.

The team, working at the ISTH in Irrua, Nigeria, used Oxford Nanopore Technology‘s portable device to rapidly sequence the genetic code of 120 virus samples. Traditionally, genomic assays used in the field required researchers to look at one genetic marker or virus strain at a time. However, this time they used a different approach, in combination with DNA sequencing, and known as metagenomics, which enabled the team to test for multiple different variations of Lassa virus genome, which is known to be highly diverse – speeding up the process of identifying the strains responsible for causing illness in this outbreak.

The approach gives insights into the genetic material of an entire virus population at a specific point in time. The researchers found that the strains in the samples weren’t all closely related, suggesting that there wasn’t a single source of the virus that then spread from person to person. Instead, there were lots of different strains, suggesting multiple different instances of contraction from rodents. These early, rapid results allowed teams on the ground to continue focusing the public health response on community engagement around rodent control, environmental sanitation and safe food storage rather than shifting to solely focusing on addressing person to person spread.

The analysis revealed a great deal of diversity and indicated mixing with Lassa virus strains of the previous year’s outbreaks.

Explaining the results, Professor Stephan Günther, Head of the Virology Department at BNITM, said:

By using this technology to look at the Lassa virus family tree and comparing samples from this outbreak to those from previous years, we were able to exclude human-to-human transmission as the reason for the surge in cases.

Instead, a frequent transmission from animals to humans seems to be the cause of the high case numbers.

Professor Miles Carroll, Head of Research and Development of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, said:

Viruses are constantly changing, becoming more or less infectious and deadly over time. By studying their genetic code, we can better understand where the virus has come from and how it spreads.

Our previous tools to probe viral genomes took over a month to provide insights. Now, we can view results in as little as one day and in a field situation, guiding the public health interventions we deliver and ensuring we can act fast to stop more people becoming ill.

Human-to-human transmission of viruses is something we always want to avoid, but in this instance, the evidence indicated that we also needed to act in other areas for maximum impact.

The Chief Medical Director of ISTH, Prof Sylvanus Okogbenin, said:

The result of the sequencing reassured managing clinicians in ISTH, the main centre for the diagnosis and treatment of Lassa fever in Nigeria. I’d like to congratulate the team for the feat. The institution is very willing to collaborate further to ensure that on-site sequencing is a regular feature of its institute of Lassa fever research and control.

Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu the Director General of NCDC added:

The results from this study, which were made available to NCDC as they became available, were critical in enabling us to provide answers to questions during the outbreak and focus response measures appropriately.

We are proud that all the sequencing was done onsite in ISTH, and will work with our partners to increase capacity for metagenomics in Nigeria.

The real-time, portable DNA sequencing technology used in this study has applications beyond Lassa fever. By being able to look at lots of different pathogen sequences in one go, the technology could be applied to previously unknown pathogens. This is important because international health agencies have predicted that an unknown ‘Pathogen X’ could cause the next major outbreak.

This new technology has the potential to enable scientists on the ground during an outbreak to rapidly study the pathogen genome without necessarily knowing what it is they are looking for.

Background

About Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM)

BNITM is Germany’s largest institution for research, services and training in the field of tropical diseases and emerging infections. The current scientific focus is on malaria, haemorrhagic fever viruses, immunology, epidemiology, clinical research of tropical infections and mechanism of transmission of viruses by mosquitoes. To study highly pathogenic viruses and infected insects, the institute is equipped with laboratories of the highest biosafety levels (BSL4) and a BSL3 insectary.

BNITM comprises the National Reference Centre for Tropical Pathogens and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Arbovirus and Haemorrhagic Fever Reference and Research. Together with the Ghanaian Ministry of Health and the University of Kumasi, it runs a modern research and training centre in the West African rainforest, which is also available to external research groups.

About PHE

PHE will continue to work with NCDC to strengthen their capacity to detect and respond to similar events in the future through the UK Aid funded IHR Strengthening Project.

About Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)

NCDC was established in the year 2011 in response to the challenges of public health emergencies and to enhance Nigeria’s preparedness and response to epidemics through prevention, detection, and control of communicable diseases. Its core mandate is to detect, investigate, prevent and control diseases of national and international public health importance.

MIL-OSI UK News

MIL-OSI UK: Press release: Amber Rudd: West Midlands a standard bearer for helping people into work

Source: United Kingdom – Executive Government & Departments

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd will take her UC fact finding tour to the West Midlands today (Friday, 4 January).

The tour forms part of a commitment to review how welfare reforms are impacting people across the country.

Making her first visit of 2019 to the West Midlands, Amber Rudd will be hosted at the Jobcentre Plus in Stoke-on-Trent and Yardley, Birmingham, to meet staff, including the work coaches who’ve helped many of the 65,000 people who’ve moved into work in the last year in the region – delivering record employment in 2018.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said:

Universal Credit can be a huge force for good and has produced positive results here in the West Midlands.

One of these is a programme I’ll see today in Yardley. It provides special training to British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi women to help get them into work for the first time.

So when I talk about making our welfare system work better and fairer for women, the West Midlands is a regional leader in this respect and these are exactly the type of schemes I want to see more of.

Yet I know there is more to do to make sure Universal Credit is right for every single person who uses it so I’m looking forward to meeting local claimants and our brilliant work coaches to hear directly from them about what is and isn’t working for them.

Since 2010 the region has seen 276,000 more people enter work – the vast majority in higher-skilled roles. 128,000 more jobs were created in IT and business services for example.

Since her appointment in November, Amber Rudd has been reviewing the government’s key welfare reform, Universal Credit, which replaces 6 different benefits with one single payment.

While the new system has been shown to get people into work more quickly and stay in work longer, Amber Rudd has committed to ensuring it works for all claimants by getting support to people faster.

While in the West Midlands she will also meet local people using the Jobcentre Plus to get back into work, including women from the British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities taking part in a special mentoring programme in Yardley.

This follows her new year commitment to make the welfare system work better for women in particular, as well as helping more people into work and ensuring they get the support they need more quickly.

She will also visit Acacia Training in Stoke – which works with local Jobcentres to help unemployed people get the qualifications they need for jobs in nursing, childcare and social care. 75,000 more people have secured health and education jobs in the West Midlands since 2010.

Yardley – British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi mentoring programme

Employment rates among British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi women are among the lowest in the UK.

That’s why Job Centre staff in Yardley launched a mentoring pilot in September 2018 for women from these communities, identifying the barriers they faced to entering work.

Working with local MP Jess Phillips to help women into the programme, they offered tailored support such as training, opportunities to gain qualifications and confidence-building exercises. Many of the women have since found jobs and the programme is expected to be rolled out further this year.

More information:

Yardley Job Centre in Birmingham has been running Universal Credit for all new claimants since November 2017, followed by Hanley Job Centre in Stoke from June 2018.

Media enquiries for this press release – 0203 267 5109

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MIL-OSI UK News