Friday, 9 February 2018

How I chanced upon the 70 year War in Public Health: Aye vs Nay for Water Fluoridation

Guest post by Priyanka Vasantavada, PhD student, School of Health and Social Care, Teesside University

Exactly a year ago to this day, I embarked on my PhD at Teesside University. Little did I know then that a year later I would find myself working on one of the most widely debated and contentious issues in public health.

Water Fluoridation is the controlled addition or removal of fluoride to water supply. Fluoride level of water is maintained at a level that is optimum for preserving dental health by making teeth resistant to decay. The practice of water fluoridation remains controversial even though half a century has passed since its first introduction. This is attributed to various issues such as, the possible negative health effects of fluoridation, lack of dose regulation at the individual level, if fluoride is mass medication and the ethical issues of consent or lack thereof.

Most academics seem surprised when I mention that water fluoridation is controversial. This may be because of the amount of research that already exists supporting the notion of the intervention being both efficient and safe. Water fluoridation happens to be one of the most widely researched topics in public health. Countries that artificially fluoridate water undertake systematic reviews every 5-10 years to update the evidence base. Studies conducted in areas with naturally high fluoride levels (i.e., fluoride endemic regions in parts of Asia) have linked high fluoride levels to skeletal disorders, and cancers etc. However, these studies are not relevant to artificial water fluoridation schemes as the health effects are dose dependent.

I vividly remember my first meeting with my Director of Studies Professor Vida Zohoori who had then asked me to come up with an original research idea and remarked, “A PhD is to foster independent scientific thought and not merely to work on a previously designed project”. I was a little taken aback by that as I had indeed applied for, and was selected to work on, an advertised PhD project! I ended up asking her what was left for me to research on this subject as seemingly all bases had already been covered. (I was neither completely wrong nor completely correct as I would realise in the months that followed.)

So, that day when I went home, I did what any millennial would do and Googled ‘water fluoridation’. Now before any of my readers from academia roll their eyes at this, I would like to clarify that I had already done a fair amount of background reading on water fluoridation from scientific databases and I also happen to be a dentist!

Through the looking glass

The search results were in equal parts exciting and exasperating. With each search results page I visited, my heart sank a little more. Every single idea that floated in my head was destroyed by the discovery of a research paper on the same. Then half exhausted and half asleep, I followed the millennial motto of ‘If you can’t read, why not watch it’!

I clicked on YouTube and just like Alice, fell right into a world I had never known existed! The ‘water fluoridation’ videos on YouTube were more mindboggling and engaging than any literature I had ever read (including but not limited to Game of Thrones). The videos attributed properties to water fluoridation or fluorides, which I had neither heard, read nor even imagined in my wildest dreams.

My curiosity peaked, and I kept trying to look for the scientific basis for the content in the videos. This search led me right into the thick of the controversy: the seemingly contradictory evidence, the prejudices, the sides and the politics around it. I found that it was not merely a controversy but an ongoing war where no one trusts one another and where battle lines are clearly demarcated. Pardon my use of dramatic language but this is the only way the situation can be described.

There are two major parties: those in favour of fluoridation and those against it. These groups are very heterogenous in their composition and no generalisations can be made. Both lobby for their own point of view and battle it out at every place across the world where water fluoridation as a public health measure is considered. And in this cacophony, I felt that the real opinion of the public is lost.

I then discovered that scientific studies on public opinion had been conducted in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Norway, Denmark and Brazil. Small fluoridation opinion studies have been conducted amongst dentists and in certain localised parts of UK as well. However, a comprehensive study examining the aspects of public perception and engagement had not yet been undertaken in the UK. I had finally found a gap and thank God for it as in the months to follow, the advertised study I had applied for had to be shelved due to ethical concerns.


Since the fluoridation debates and discussions mostly take place on the web, I felt that this the ideal platform to engage people about the issue. To examine the public’s awareness and attitude towards water fluoridation in the UK, I have designed a 10-minute web survey (with optional follow-up e-mail interviews). There is even a prize draw for 10 e-shopping vouchers worth £10 each up for grabs! So, if you are interested to know more about the research or would like to participate, please follow the links below or email me at P.Vasantavada@tees.ac.uk.

You can complete the survey here



Image: By josconklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 26 January 2018

'Not making decisions on our behalf': Empowering communities to tackle health inequalities

Guest post by Sue Lewis, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University and Emma Halliday, Senior Research Fellow, Lancaster University

Community empowerment and the mobilisation of resident knowledge have long been seen as fundamental in tackling health inequalities. Recent strategic documents (e.g., Public Health England’s A guide to community-centred approaches for health and wellbeing and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence community engagement guidance have, more recently, also drawn attention to the need to place communities at the centre of approaches to reduce damaging differentials in health and wellbeing.

Photo: Courtesy of Liz Kessler
Are we – practitioners and public – ready to make this happen? What do we know (from research, from local experience) and what do we still need to understand or address? Delegates at the recent Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting (QRM) spent a lively morning pondering these important questions.

Emma’s reflections on her experience of research in this field sets the scene:
“Since joining Lancaster University, much of my time has been spent interviewing residents and practitioners about community engagement in area based initiatives.

One of my first encounters was a retrospective look at New Deal for Communities (NDC) approaches to engagement. In some areas, people shared powerful examples of what had been achieved from collaboration placed on a more equal footing. As one resident explained: ‘it was physically, mentally everything, you were involved in it all and you feel proud because you’ve had, you’ve taken part in something good…there’s an awful lot of these projects have come to fruition and you can see, you know, you can actually see the difference that it’s made.’
Yet within the same programme, experiences varied significantly. Elsewhere, residents were left disillusioned about the falling away of an early commitment to engagement where the model became increasingly driven by ‘top down’ pressures. 
‘It moved away from gathering the views of the people and acting on the views of the people to involving the people in New Deal for Communities’, explained another resident.

More recently, the Big Local programme, funded by the Big Lottery and managed by Local Trust, has been the focus of research. The NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Communities in Control study, undertaken by a collaboration of academic partners including Fuse (Fuse lead, Professor Clare Bambra; researchers Dr Sue Lewis and Dr Vicki McGowan) and led by Professor Jennie Popay at LiLaC, is evaluating the health and social impacts of the resident led programme. While still early days, latest findings show positive impacts for wellbeing for residents actively involved in the programme but also that experiences of involvement can at times also be stressful and challenging.”
So the Fuse QRM (Empowering communities and mobilising resident knowledge to tackle health inequalities, January 11th, 2018) was an important opportunity for public health partners in the North East to reflect on ways of working that enable more equitable collaboration between citizens, the public and the third sector. An exercise to warm people to the topic indicated that many in the audience agreed that there were opportunities in the region (and beyond) for citizens to influence decisions that affect the places where they live. In contrast, far fewer felt that public sector agencies had a sufficiently good understanding of the barriers that impede participation. We clearly have a lot still to learn from one another.

James Hadman, Stockton Catalyst, stimulated thinking
 about grassroots projects having positive impacts but also
drew attention to the times when things don’t work so well
It’s important, then, to share what we already know. The morning included presentations that provided complementary perspectives on the issues at hand. Insights from James Hadman from Stockton Catalyst stimulated thinking about grassroots projects having positive impacts including the role of the Stockton Voice Forum (which gives Stockton’s voluntary, community and social enterprise sector a say in strategic developments in the Borough). Importantly, however, he also drew attention to the times when things don’t work so well, including barriers that were also identified in the New Deal for Communities (NDC) research: where engagement is top down, or driven by professionals’ agendas.

Alison Patey (Yorkshire and Humber Public Health England) gave the national picture, arguing that working with communities should be considered as valid as any other social determinant. A new programme of support is also offering online training for practitioners. And presentations from Emma and myself (Sue) offered the view from research, including findings from the Communities in Control study (in which three North East Big Local areas participated).

Looking ahead, the Communities in Control programme has received SPHR funding to produce resources for residents and practitioners. These will draw attention to the public health evidence already available for place based initiatives and take inspiration from stories of community action that illustrate the potential effects (positive and negative) for community participation and collaboration and, ultimately, empowerment, control and health inequalities.

There aren’t quick fixes to overcoming the imbalances of power between citizens and agencies. But it is, as a resident interviewed in the Communities in Control study put it, about creating a public health system where decisions don’t get ‘made on our behalf as to what they think we should have.’

Friday, 12 January 2018

Kale and running shoes

Posted by Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse, Dietitian and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University

"January is our busiest month" said Hayley in the bustling fruit and vegetable shop in the small North Yorkshire market town where I live. This was on the first Saturday of January. She said their sales of kale had rocketed as people started juicing, eating better and generally trying to improve their diet. All this following the excesses of Christmas.

On Sunday morning, when I was out running (or trying to run on the icy pavements!), I was surprised at the number of runners pounding the streets in our small town. Then I remembered, it's the first weekend in January. Maybe, like me they have a shiny new gadget that they are somewhat obsessed with (how many steps have I done today?). There must be an exponential increase in the number of runners and kale consumers.

What is it about 'New Year, New You' that never fails to deliver and how long will these new behaviours be sustained? Why is it that our print and broadcast media don't grow tired of feeding us (excuse the pun) the same January story of …”you've eaten and drunk to excess in December now it's time to abstain from alcohol (Dry January) and go on an excessive unsustainable dietary regime”... Or the most recent health “craze” of ‘raw water’.

Our social media feeds are filled with so called 'nutrition and fitness experts'. The Instagram squares show us before and after pictures of success stories, quick fixes, rapid weight loss etc. etc... Not so many squares saying - look at your diets, your lifestyle, make sustainable changes as these are more likely to succeed in the long term (well apart from one of my professional organisations The British Dietetic Association).

What about the evidence? Does it advocate New Year's resolutions? Are we programmed to wait for the longer term goals or do we need to have instant results? A study published in 2016 suggests that while individuals may exercise for the long term goal of improved health, it is actually the immediate reward that predicts their persistence in that behaviour.

Ultimately these resolutions are about an individual's behaviour change. Much of our public health policy focuses on individuals changing their behaviours. Anyone who has tried to do this knows how difficult it is. Yet, we (professionals, the media, society) continue to focus on the individual who is generally living in an environment where kale isn't an everyday option and running shoes only go on at the weekend – or sit looking pristine in the cupboard.

What we need is a change in the system or what is called a 'whole systems approach' to health and lifestyle problems. The most obvious lifestyle related problem is that of obesity. There is a chronic problem of energy imbalance affecting our whole population young, middle-aged and old. We are encouraged to eat less and exercise more but really, the environment doesn't support those changes (for the majority of the population). Will our policy makers have any New Year's resolutions to focus less on the individual and more on the system in which we make our behaviours? With changes such as a sugar levy coming into play, we are seeing food manufacturers reformulate or change product size. But we also hear reports of people stockpiling sugary drinks that are about to be reformulated. Is this the start of a shift away from the individual and to systems thinking? I very much hope so.

Kale and running shoes are not the answer to addressing a health and lifestyle crisis but long term supported and sustainable changes are.


Image: 'Marinated Kale Salad-2' (23204695074_92c53db643_z) by 'jules' via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stone-soup/23204695074

Friday, 22 December 2017

Merry Christmas from Fuse

We would like to wish all of our readers and contributors a very happy festive season. We will return in the New Year - why not make a resolution to blog in 2018 and send us your posts?


Friday, 15 December 2017

Not addicted but still having an impact: children living with parents who misuse drugs and alcohol

Guest post by Dr Ruth McGovern, Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University

There is growing political interest in the misuse of alcohol and drugs by parents and its impact upon children. The newly published Drug Strategy 2017 highlights drug and alcohol dependent parents as a priority group with an estimated 360,000 children living with parents who are dependent upon alcohol or heroin.

As a registered social worker, I have often identified ‘dependent parental substance misuse’ as a risk factor in many ‘child in need’ assessments conducted by Children’s Services. Around half of all child protection cases, recurring care proceedings (repeat children removed and placed into local authority care) and serious case reviews (enquiries following child death or serious injury where neglect or abuse is known or suspected) involve parents who misuse substances. However, the impact of parental substance misuse is not limited to addicts. The number of children living with parents who misuse but aren’t dependent upon alcohol and drugs is likely to be substantially more than the number of children living with those who are addicts. As such, greater harm in the population as a whole is likely to be experienced by these children.

I have been part of a group of academics and clinicians who have recently concluded a rapid evidence review funded by Public Health England (PHE). The review found evidence that parents who misuse, but aren’t dependent on substances, can have a significant impact on the physical, psychological and social health of their child. For instance, in early childhood we found that children of mothers misusing alcohol [1] were twice as likely to suffer a long bone fracture and five times as likely to be accidentally poisoned, than children whose mothers do not drink heavily. Children of mothers misusing alcohol or drugs are also more likely to require outpatient care or to be hospitalised due to injury or illness, and for longer. The impact of substance misuse by parents continues into adolescence, with our review showing an increased likelihood of antisocial, defiant and violent behaviour in late adolescence as well as substance misuse by the child. However, many of these children and families are not identified as being affected by the substance misuse of a parent and subsequently do not receive the help they need in the form of an intervention.

Therefore, our review also examined the evidence for effective interventions to help reduce the numbers of parents misusing alcohol and drugs. Family-level interventions, particularly those that offer intensive case management, or those which provide parents with a clear motivation (such as those linked to care proceedings) show promise in reducing the problem. Unfortunately, there was little research examining the effectiveness of interventions for parents misusing but not dependent on alcohol and drugs.

PAReNTS study logo
To respond to this evidence gap, we designed the PAReNTS study (Promoting Alcohol Reduction in Non Treatment Seeking parents). Within this study we are examining the feasibility and acceptability of alcohol screening (using the AUDIT-C questionnaire [2]) and brief interventions with parents involved in early help and statutory children’s social care services. The brief intervention is an adapted version of the ‘How much is too much?’ programme for parents [3] which combines advice and behaviour change activities and is delivered by both social care practitioners and the local alcohol service. Whilst alcohol brief interventions have been found to be effective in adults who misuse alcohol, little is known about the effectiveness of such interventions for parents with additional and complex needs. This presents unique challenges, for instance, parents may be concerned about the stigma of being labelled as having an alcohol problem, particularly if this could be used as a reason to remove their child from their care. There is clearly a need for a sensitive approach. In future blog posts, I hope to update you on the progress we make with the PAReNTS study and whether it is feasible to deliver early interventions with alcohol misusing parents to improve the wellbeing of children, who are often overlooked in public health.

References:
  1. Below the age of 10 years, much of the evidence focuses on mothers with alcohol misuse problems as most caregiving is carried out by mothers during early years. 
  2. The AUDIT-C is a 3-item alcohol screen that can help identify persons who are hazardous drinkers or have active alcohol use disorders (including alcohol abuse or dependence): https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/images/res/tool_auditc.pdf
  3. This programme was highlighted by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence alcohol prevention guidance (PH24): https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph24.
Image credits:

Friday, 8 December 2017

Is it possible to have a research career without being a workaholic?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

This was one of the burning questions that NIHR trainees put to an esteemed panel of career advisers at their annual meeting in Leeds. Every year the National Institute for Health Research brings together their trainees at a two-day event to network, share experiences, take part in workshops and generally learn more about the largest national clinical research funder in Europe. This year’s theme: Future Training for Future Health.


With all these bright minds in the room and a dedicated session on successful fellowships and grant applications, you would think ‘top tips on surviving an interview’ and ‘what mistakes to avoid in an application’ would be on the top of their list. However, after several inspiring presentations from previous and current award holders who had climbed the academic ladder - including Fuse Director Ashley Adamson a NIHR Research Professor - participants were equally, if not more, concerned about maintaining a healthy life-work balance.

Follow the yellow brick road to academic success
While Brexit questions made a brave entrance (Q: How will Brexit affect future research? A: In the long term, not all all!), they could not knock questions about mental health and wellbeing from the top spot. When Ashley included pictures of her son in a musical-inspired animation of her academic pathway (follow the yellow-brick road!) to explain that she preferred part-time work to spend more time with her family, participants immediately asked “but how do you fit family in with an academic career?”.

New gadget SLI.DO was introduced by the NIHR at the meeting this year: participants could submit questions through a mobile app, which others could vote to be answered by the panel (Bush Tucker Trial for academics). Not having to stand up in front of an audience to say who you are, might have given some participants the confidence to ask uncomfortable questions. The honest and open stories from the presenters about their own struggles and failures in academia (“my new post oscillated between agony and despair”) might also have contributed to this confidence.

Paul McGee emphasises the importance of
 looking after your mental health in academia
Experiences of stress and concerns over mental health in academic careers were acknowledged throughout the conference in various presentations and workshops. This was perhaps most evident in the closing session by Paul McGee (aka The Sumo Guy) who emphasises the importance of looking after your mental health in academia. His four key messages (be kind to yourself; get perspective; hippo time - to wallow - is ok; and keep pushing) resonated with many participants and provoked a strong response on social media.

As public health researchers, we are familiar with these messages. In our studies, we underline the link between physical and mental health, express our deep concern over the lack of mental health services and highlight the importance of resilience training from an early age in schools. However, it appears that we are not very good at applying this evidence to our own life and work.

This was recently confirmed by a systematic review of published work on researchers' well-being featured in the Times Higher Education. The review, commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, found that academics face higher mental health risk than many other professions. Lack of job security, limited support from management and weight of work-related demands on time were listed as factors affecting the mental health of those who work in higher education.

Given this evidence, is it possible to have an academic career and stay healthy? Despite the questions raised at the annual event, the NIHR trainees were keen to acknowledge positive mental health messages: you can have a life and family outside academia (no need to be workaholic, although being a data geek is acceptable*); it’s ok to be different and carve your own path to develop your intellectual independence; and most of all: the key to success is self-care and not funding.

* An after-dinner presentation by @StatsJen taught us that there is a perfect correlation between eating cheese and death by entanglement in bedsheets. Will midnight cheese feasts be the next public health scare?

Friday, 1 December 2017

When the Coca-Cola truck comes to your town

Guest post by Robin Ireland, Director of Research at Food Active and Beth Bradshaw, Project Officer at Food Active.

When Coca-Cola announced their 'Holidays Are Coming' truck tour (ironically coinciding with Sugar Awareness Week), our local media in the North West covered the story like it was the first sign of Christmas, the first cuckoo to be spotted in spring.

And in the run up to the big red shiny sugar-laden truck’s arrival to our towns and cities, from Bolton to Liverpool, Manchester to St Helens, the local newspapers will cover the story in page after page of advertorials, telling you where to get your picture taken posing with Coca-Cola's sugary products and even live blogs in some cases.

In previous years, at no time did the reporters consider that not everyone welcomed the truck in their neighbourhood. Many people are concerned that the truck was marketing Coke to children despite the company's protestations that they do not promote their products to the under twelves. Furthermore, in some locations in the North West the truck was allowed to promote their unhealthy drinks to children and families on Council owned landed. 

To demonstrate our concern, last year Food Active drafted a letter objecting to Coca-Cola's tour coming to the North West which was sent to the national and regional media. No less than 108 people signed in support including the current and past Presidents of the Faculty of Public Health, five Directors of Public Health, Professors, Doctors, educationalists and of course parents. If we are honest, we were shocked that the letter was almost entirely ignored. It would appear that Coca-Cola's commercial clout and public relations campaign counted more than the collective voice of those who are having to address the results of diets regularly fuelled by liquid sugar.

Just before Christmas 2016, Professor John Ashton and I (Robin) were in contact with the British Medical Journal concerning these issues and were invited to submit an editorial which was published in January [1]. In contrast to their previous experience the media attention was huge including coverage in over 60 regional and national newspapers and interviews on various channels including Sky News and Wales Today.

This year, the media attention and discussions around the Coca Cola Christmas Tour has continued. Before the tour was even announced, a news story hit the local press in the North West from Liverpool councillor Richard Kemp CBE (also Deputy Chair of the Community Wellbeing Board at the Local Government Association of England and Wales), who raised concerns about its arrival in Liverpool given the city is ‘in the grip of an obesity epidemic’ – although we know this is not an issue only in Liverpool – the whole country is in the grip on an obesity epidemic. Once the tour was announced, including six visits to the North West, we were pleased to see none were on council-owned land (in 2016 the truck visited Williamson Square in Liverpool which is owned by the Council)

Following this came a cascade of news stories from local and national newspapers and radio stations. This year, Food Active joined up with Sugar Smart to encourage Directors of Public Health, Council Leads and Clinical Commissioning Group Chairs across the country to sign an open letter to Coca-Cola opposing its arrival, given the health harms associated with the consumption of their products and calling for more responsible marketing during the festive period. The North West represented one quarter of the 29 areas, cities and towns who signed the letter. This advocacy may have helped to prompt a response from Public Health England and Public Health Wales – there is a sense that the argument against the Coca-Cola truck are now being taken seriously and media coverage of the 2017 Coca Cola Christmas Tour is not just about when and where you can get your photo taken - but also the health concerns. 
Coca-Cola says that it does not promote its products to the under twelves

Following excellent work by Public Health England, by national organisations including Action on Sugar, the Children's Food Campaign and many others, and of course by Food Active in the North West, we know that we must target sugary drinks as part of a strategy to address the tsunami of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental disease we face in our poorest and most deprived communities. Moreover, as highlighted in a blog by Dr. Alison Tedstone, Director of Diet and Obesity at Public Health England, the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas which are often disproportionately burdened with higher levels of obesity [2]. As such, a symbol of ill health should not be welcomed nor celebrated within our communities during a season of good will and cheer. 

However, this is not only about high sugar drinks. Protecting children from junk food marketing has been outlined as the number one priority in tackling obesity by the Obesity Health Alliance (a coalition of over 40 organisations committed to reducing obesity – of whom Food Active is a member). We must not mistake the Coca-Cola truck for anything but a very high profile marketing stunt. We do not allow products high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children on children’s TV programmes, so why is the Coca-Cola truck welcomed into our communities year on year with such open arms? Speaking at the Socialist Health Alliance Public Health Conference, we called for junk food marketing controls to be extended to cover family attractions such as the Coca-Cola truck, as well as sports sponsorship and marketing communications in schools. By allowing the truck into our towns and cities, we are allowing Coca-Cola to exploit the festive period to market their products to the community – and to children in particular.

Our experience shows us that public health has to be persistent in ensuring our messages are heard in the current victim-blaming culture. There is little point in local authorities spending their ever restricted funds on promoting healthier eating and drinking if each Christmas we allow Coca-Cola and others to highjack our messages. There is certainly no excuse for local authorities at to allow this truck on their land and it is the responsibility of public health advocates to continue to make the case to Give Up Loving Pop in 2018. 
  
References:
  1. Ireland, Robin, and John R. Ashton. "Happy corporate holidays from Coca-Cola." (2017): i6833. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6833
  2. Tedstone, Alison. “An update on sugar reduction”. (2017). Available at: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2017/11/14/sugar-reduction-an-update/


Photo © Oast House Archive (cc-by-sa/2.0)


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