By Dr Amrita Jesurasa

Ever since our most ancient ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world the appearance of their descendants has changed.

Height, facial features, hair type, body size and shape, and invisible genes that can protect from or predispose to disease have developed and differentiated racial groups. But the most profound (and superficial) change has to be in the colour of our skin as people migrated and settled around the world.

Skin colour forms a strong part of our physical and social identity, at times unifying people but more distressingly, causing division. The legacy of this evolutionary change has left its scars on human history in the last few hundred years and continues to cause tension in the present. Ethnic inequalities in health are well recognised and yet we perhaps fail to recognise the true message from history: why did skin colour change?

Current theory suggests that this phenomenon arose as a result of our need for vitamin D. As our early ancestors migrated to northern latitudes, they experienced the severe consequences of vitamin D deficiency. These included bone deformities that affected their ability to walk, breathe and – crucially – to give birth (the latter the result of changes to the female pelvis).

In Europe, natural selection began to favour lighter skin that allowed ultraviolet radiation to be more readily absorbed, vitamin D to be synthesised and ultimately our species to survive in Europe and other northern climes.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and rapid technological advances have transformed the way we live. Some of these developments, including air travel, have facilitated evolutionary shortcuts, enabling the humans of today to live in environments that are totally different to that of even the previous generation. But other advances have affected the behaviour of us all by encouraging a more indoor lifestyle than that of our ancestors, creating fear of the adverse effects of the sun and altering our dietary habits.

This perfect storm has allowed vitamin D deficiency to become a population-wide issue, but one which has the greatest impact on those with darker skin. The irony is that this disproportionate effect within the population marginalises the issue of vitamin D deficiency, creating an ethnicity-related health inequality.

To raise the profile of vitamin D deficiency, universal issues need to be addressed and universal solutions provided. While improving access to vitamin D supplements must be part of this strategy, there are worrying common pitfalls associated with an exclusively medical approach.

Instead, a simple message may resonate more with both the public and policy-makers. This could mean promoting a basic principle that “like plants, we need food, water and sunshine to thrive”. With a more holistic approach we can relate prevention of vitamin D deficiency to other important and well-recognised public health concerns, thereby raising the priority of this historically important issue.

  • Dr Jesurasa is a Specialty Registrar in Public Health Medicine/ Honorary Clinical Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield
By Philip Daniels, Health Education England Global Health Fellow

Over the next year I will be working within the Public Health England Global Health Team. Based in London and Freetown, I’ll be supporting the development of the Sierra Leone National Public Health Agency, working with colleagues from Sierra Leone, USA and China.

Being awarded a Health Education England Global Health Fellowship is an enormous privilege. It gives me the chance to work with colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds, disciplines and nationalities. I’ll be blogging regularly to help me record what I see and learn.

It is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in Global Public Health. Issues such as pandemic disease, outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika, as well as the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and climate change are increasingly informing the UK’s approach to Public Health.

The UK is a signatory of both the International Health Regulations (2005) and the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) – the latter of which include an explicit commitment to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

The UK Aid strategy (2015) restructured Overseas Development Aid (ODA), on which the UK spends 0.7% of its GDP, to ensure that it is spent on tackling the great global challenges. As part of this, the UK government has established:

  • The Ross Fund, a £1 billion initiative to tackle the most dangerous infectious diseases such as Ebola, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and drug resistant infections
  • A £500 million ODA crisis reserve to enable effective cross-government responses to crises as they happen
  • A Global Challenges research fund of £1.5 billion over the next five years to ensure UK science takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries – such as building resilience during emergencies and tackling AMR.

In addition, the government has committed to increasing UK climate finance for developing countries by at least 50%, to reduce emissions, increase access to energy, build resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable people, and to reduce deforestation.

All of this reflects an awareness that what happens internationally and globally affects health security in the UK. It’s also apparent that the expertise based in the UK has much to offer the rest of the world, as illustrated by PHE’s successful efforts to give public health and science a bigger role within the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk reduction (2015-2030).

Reflecting this, Public Health England and the Faculty of Public Health have published Global Health Strategy. It highlights not only the complexity of the problems faced, but also the enormous contribution that will be made in the coming years by UK Public Health. It is within this context that I begin my Global Health Fellowship.

It is set to be a challenging and rewarding year; I look forward to sharing it with you.


Tomorrow (11 October) marks a day of mourning and sadness to many Muslims across the world. It is Ashoura – a day which not only has sad connotations for many Muslims but also sees increasing numbers of people making potentially dangerous cuts to their body.

Ashoura means the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharam. It commemorates the brutal death of Imam Hussain (Muslim prophet’s grandson) in a fierce battle over 1000 years ago. Imam Hussain, his family and his followers were murdered.

This event is observed mainly within the Shiite Muslim community in different ways. The range of responses varies from donating to those in need to, at the extreme end of the scale,  Shiite Muslims showing their repentance through self-inflicting injuries using knives, spiked or bladed chains and other sharp tools.

This practice is well known as Zanjeer Zani. It is most common in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. However, there have been reports of this practice emerging in Europe and the UK.

While many Islamic scholars are publicly opposing  Zangeer Zani it is impossible to control or ban this deeply rooted cultural practice. Hence a harm reduction approach is best to minimise the risks associated with this ritual.

The main public health risk is Blood Borne Viruses (BBV) and other bacterial skin infections.

Unfortunately, the risks are not well documented and there is nothing published in the literature. The ministries of health of those countries where this practice is common and the WHO-EMRO region have no protocols or guidelines in place in response to this annual practice.

Although I fully acknowledge the challenges in the EMRO region, I would like to call upon clinicians and public health professionals in the UK to raise awareness, encourage testing for BBV and promote contact tracing and Hepatitis B vaccination as interim measures to reduce the risks associated with this ceremony.

Dr Bayad Nozad, FFPH with special interest in Blood Borne Viruses


Last week marked the end of the fifth global World Alzheimer’s Month. It gave us all a chance to reflect on the importance of this international campaign to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds dementia.

The theme for World Alzheimer’s Month 2016 was Remember Me. Alzheimer’s Disease International asked people to get involved by sharing their favourite memories, or memories of a loved one, on social media with the hashtags #RememberMe and #WAM2016.

Alzheimer associations in more than 60 countries took part in this year’s campaign, raising awareness, and advancing action to make dementia more understood.
FPH members, as part of the leading professional body for public health specialist in the UK, provide sterling service at local and national levels, promoting effective preventative measures to reduce the risk of people developing dementia, and advocating for a more dementia friendly society.

Below is just one example of that work.

Claire Beynon, Registrar and Chair of Specialty Registrars Committee – Dementia Health

Needs Assessment for Cardiff and Vale
Dementia in Cardiff and Vale
Currently in Cardiff and Vale there are estimated to be approximately 5,500 people with dementia, about half of whom have a diagnosis.  Due to a growing and ageing population by 2025 this is expected to rise to nearly 7,000 people living with dementia.  Timely diagnosis can slow the progression of dementia and help individuals identify sources of support.
How has Cardiff and Vale promoted World Alzheimer’s month?
Cardiff and Vale have been running a campaign on social media and have produced three patient stories that have proved popular, see the website for the stories. http://www.cardiffandvaleuhb.wales.nhs.uk/caring-for-someone-with-dementia
So how does my work fit into this?
By undertaking a health needs assessment I hope to raise the profile of unmet health needs in the local area.
One in five cases of dementia may be preventable with exercise, diet, diabetes prevention, and early treatment of depression so we need to consider how we can move more focus towards prevention.  The Welsh Government recently produced a guide on how to reduce your risk in six steps.


Why undertake a Health Needs Assessment for Dementia now?
The Cardiff and Vale 3 Year Dementia Plan is due to end in 2016/17, and there is a need to refresh the information on which it is based and make new recommendations based on the altered circumstances.  The purpose of this Dementia Health Needs Assessment Plan is to outline the process that will be undertaken to assess the health needs of people with dementia and their carers in Cardiff and Vale.
In my role as a Specialty Registrar time I will co-ordinate the Dementia Health Needs Assessment. The needs assessment will be undertaken during the period July to December 2016.  A final report will be prepared in December 2016.


  • By Isabella Goldie

  • Director of Development and Delivery

  • Mental Health Foundation

There are times throughout all of our lives when we are likely to run into difficulty, particularly at life’s pressure points: the crucial times of transition from one life stage to another. From moving away from home for university, to having children or dealing with the loss of a loved one.

If we are to rise to the challenge of reducing the prevalence of mental health problems, we need to be stepping in at these pressure points, taking preventative measures that can support people through times of difficulty and stop mental health problems from developing in the first place.

This will require a societal shift. We will need to begin truly recognising good mental health as a universal asset to be strengthened and protected. We can no longer afford to wait for mental health problems to develop before taking action.

The effective support of people experiencing mental health problems is set to become one of the greatest public health challenges of this decade. Without action on the increasing demand for public services, it will not be possible to absorb the rising costs of providing care and support for those experiencing mental ill health in the long term. We need to act decisively as we have in the past when faced with significant risks to public health.

It is essential that we also draw our attention to preventative approaches so that illness is a rarer event.

The historical approaches to curing illness and responding in crises has left a legacy of health services designed to fix problems. While access to good quality mental health services and support must continue to improve and rapidly, it is essential that we also draw our attention to preventative approaches so that illness is a rarer event, both in recognition of the economic costs and also in the sometimes devastating personal impact resulting from poor mental health and mental health problems.

Last week the Mental Health Foundation published Mental health and prevention: taking local action for better mental health, a report produced with Public Health England which lays out a road map for bringing about a prevention revolutio

n in mental health, delivered in every local area. In addition to the strong theme of mental health across the life-course, taking every opportunity to step in early and prevent the development of mental health problems, the need to improve the mental health knowledge and literacy of the entire public service workforce is highlighted.

Integrating mental health improvement into daily work

This radically different approach encourages all health and social care staff to consider the impact of mental health inequalities and act to reduce them. Staff must react to these inequalities in line with the principles of ‘proportionate universalism’, an approach that progressively applies resources where the greatest risks lie.

In practical terms, this means integrating mental health improvement into daily work, with messages and interventions tailored to meet specific needs of those at highest risk of developing mental health problems.

We need to ensure that high-quality services are both available and easily accessible for those that need them most, while also intervening early to reduce the need for specialist support. We can achieve this by giving individuals, families and communities, the tools to protect and manage their own mental health.

This will only ever be achieved by working alongside communities, listening to people’s stories of lived experience to understand what impacts their mental health and what tools they need.

  • by Bayad Nozad, FFPH
  • Co-chair, FPH’s Global Violence Prevention SIG

Air pollution is a serious public health issue and high on the agenda now. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Public Health England (PHE) collaboratively produced guidance to ensure evidence based actions are taken nationally and locally to improve air quality.

The WHO guidelines states that that there are no safe levels of the main pollutant of concern, Particulate Matter (PM), and impacts on air pollution are observed below levels permitted by EU and UK limits (1). The guidance also states that for long term exposure (over months or years) the levels should not exceed annual average concentrations of PM of 10 μg/m3 of PM2.5 and 20 μg/m3 of PM10 (2):

There is now mounting evidence that long term exposure to air pollutants contributes to the development of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory illness. The Department of Health’s (DH) Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) estimated the burden of PM air pollution in the UK to be equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths and an associated loss of population life of 340,000 life years lost (3).

It is not disputed that military conflicts are associated with massive release of pollutants into the environment including air. The war in Iraq associated with hundred thousand tonnes of pollutants from military vehicles and weaponry that continue to adversely affect the public’s health.

A great legislation that contributed to limit the environmental damages from industry is the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). The PPP is a well-established National, European and International code through which the costs of pollution prevention and control measures should be paid by polluter.

The preventive function of the PPP which is based on the assumption that the polluter will reduce pollution as soon as the costs which he or she has to bear are higher than the benefits anticipated from continuing pollution. The control measures should be decided by public authorities to ensure that the environment is in an acceptable state (4).

In applying the above principle to the war in Iraq, it would be useful to know how much consideration had been given to the air quality and the PPP in the decision making process to invade Iraq. It is less likely that this was an issue for the decision makers but would they now face the consequences and take responsibility to clean up the mess, in particularly following the publication of the Chilcot report?

Further, the health impacts from air pollution are not limited to the residents of the affected area but also to serving military personnel. This should be highlighted to new army recruits as occupational hazard and measures should be taken to reduce the adverse effects.

child at water fountain
Future generations in Iraq and conflict zones need access to clean water

More research is needed to quantify the war-related environmental pollution as a considerable potential contributor to Iraq’s poor health conditions and high rates of mortality from CVD and cancer.

For the sake of future generations of Iraqis and others growing up in former conflict zones, we cannot let winning the peace be at the expense of access to clean water as well as good air quality and health.

(1) Review of evidence on Health Aspects of Air Pollution – REVIHAAP: final Technical Report, World Health Organization Office for Europe, 2013
(2) WHO air quality guidelines global update 2005, World Health Organisation, 2005
(3)  The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom A report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, 2010

  • by Marguerite Regan
  • Policy Manager, Mental Health Foundation

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year, representing the largest single cause of disability in the UK. As it stands, the economic and social costs of poor mental health (estimated at £105 billion a year) are too great for our health and social care systems to handle.

We need to invest in upstream interventions in the places where people live, learn, work and play. It is imperative that a public health perspective is taken within mental health to change the current crisis and reactive service model.

The mind-body division has historically mean that public mental health has been a neglected field and perceived to be outside the remit of public health.  The Faculty of Public Health chose to focus on the mental health agenda, making it the core theme of their annual conference this year and collaborating with the Mental Health Foundation to combine expertise and produce some key resource aimed at supporting the development of knowledge and skills in public mental health.

Better Mental Health For All cover

Better Mental Health For All report

The resources include a report, three videos and a Public Mental Health Award. Over 600 copies were distributed to delegates at the Brighton-held conference.

The report examines what can be done individually and collectively to enhance the mental health of individuals, families and communities by using a public health approach and looks to support the development of knowledge and skills in public mental health. The report is an evidence based resource for people who want to create real change in local communities.

It outlines the critical role that public health professionals, commissioners and elected representatives play in leading the necessary reforms. The report gives clarity to the fact that we know how much can be done to promote mental health and wellbeing across all age groups, prevent mental health problems from occurring and to support people to recover their mental health.

Throughout the report, case studies showcase examples of innovative public mental health programmes and projects being run across the UK. These were selected from the thirty entries submitted to the Faculty of Public Health inaugural 2016 Public Mental Health Awards and celebrate the public health professionals who are pioneering role models for public mental health.

Three of these case studies were then chosen to have their work presented in short videos, which were launched at the conference. These three varied examples illustrate clear advocacy for public mental health by public health practitioners, exploring; A mens mental health/suicide prevention project in Torbay;  a project addressing mental wellbeing as part of flood response in Somerset;  and social prescribing in Lanarkshire.

The public health professionals involved in these, and several of the other case studies, were invited to share best practice at two sessions held during the conference. It should be noted that these particular sessions were hugely popular with delegates, illustrated by the room being well over capacity.

FPH’s focus on highlighting public mental health this year was largely driven by outgoing President, Professor John R Ashton CBE. He spoke at length about mental health during the conference and awarded the Faculty’s inaugural Public Mental Health award to Gerry Cadogan, Public Health Principal at Torbay Council, for the Torbay men’s mental health/suicide prevention project. Mental health ran through the whole conference, with the keynote given by Dr Stan Kutcher on increasing mental health literacy of young people.

Collaboration is central to the pursuit of good mental health across society. It is vital that both public health practitioners and mental health professionals become advocates for public mental health to prevent mental health problems and promote mental wellbeing.

This isn’t to say that full responsibility lies with them, and governmental-level action and support is also required. It is our hope that this partnership between the Mental Health Foundation and the Faculty of Public Health will encourage more leadership and advocates for public mental health across the UK.