Health agency pledges to 'step up our defences'

August 15, 2003

The new national Health Protection Agency has pledged to step up research in a bid to tackle new waves of infectious disease such as the recent Sars epidemic.

The agency, formed in April, brings together major research centres including the Public Health Laboratory Service, the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research and the National Focus for Chemical Incidents. It published its strategic priorities for the next five years last week.

HPA chair Sir William Stewart said: "The global threats to health have moved on and so must we - it's time to step up our health defences. The Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) experience demonstrated that a new bug can spread around the world in days."

The agency plans to develop a number of research programmes. These will include investigating how genes affect susceptibility to disease, research on the hazards and effects of exposure to chemicals and radiation, and using computer modelling to assess how infectious diseases spread.

The HPA also aims to develop a big programme of research and development to bring forward new vaccines for key infections.

The organisation sees "horizon scanning" for potential new threats, such as the impact of climate change, as being a key part of its role. Its chief executive, Pat Troop, said: "What we need to do is predict what we think is going to happen."

Meanwhile, the Health Development Agency this week criticised public health research, claiming that only a tiny proportion of research tackled the issue of preventing rather than treating disease. In a paper looking at cancer, heart disease and smoking, the HDA concludes that less than 0.4 per cent of public health research published in the UK relates to the prevention and reduction of ill-health.

The report found universities were turned off research focusing on the prevention of disease because of its cost and complexity.

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