Aspirin and cognitive function

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DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39204.473252.80 · Source: PubMed
Benefit has not yet been shown, but may be due to difficulties in selecting the right outcome measure
Aspirin and cognitive function
Benefit has not yet been shown but may be due to difficulties in selecting the
right outcome measure
Growing old is associated with a greater risk of falls,
reduced bone volume, vascular events, cognitive decline,
and depression. Although it is relatively straightforward
to study the effects of interventions on the physical
risks associated with ageing, studying effects on cog-
nitive function is more difficult. Age related cognitive
impairment affects about 5% of people over 65 in the
developed world, and about half of those affected have
memory loss.
In this weeks BMJ, Kang and colleagues
assess the impact of aspirin on cognitive function in a
subgroup of elderly women enrolled in the women’s
health study
a randomised controlled trial of the effect
of aspirin on cardiovascular morbidity and cancer.
What is the evidence on interventions for delaying
or preventing age related cognitive decline? Drugs for
dementia produce transient symptomatic improvements
by enhancing cholinergic neurotransmission but they
do not delay progress to severe dementia. Molecular
neurobiological and epidemiological studies suggest
several interventions (such the possible neuroprotec-
tive effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
that may slow cognitive decline and postpone the onset
of dementia. Many of these population based studies
identify risk factors for vascular disease as targets for
preventing dementia. These studies also highlight the
fact that complex research designs are necessary to take
account of confounding by the differential effects of sur-
vival and the contribution of lifelong habits associated
with retention of good health. Persisting uncertainty
about the timing and nature of the prodromal phase of
dementia remains an important obstacle to assessing the
efficacy of interventions. Including participants in trials
who are not at increased risk of cognitive decline will
reduce the likelihood of detecting efficacy.
So far, results have been encouraging. Treatment
of hypertension is beneficial in older people, with
well established cognitive benefits, possibly including
reduced risk of transition to dementia.
Evidence is
strengthening in support of folic acid supplementation to
reduce hyperhomocysteinaemia (a putative vascular risk
factor), which in turn improves cognition,
although it is
unclear whether supplementation will prevent dementia.
The case for antioxidant vitamin supplements remains
weak, because although some reduction in the incidence
of dementia seems plausible, good quality trials are lack-
ing. Likewise, marine oil supplementation has not been
adequately tested.
A case therefore exists for reducing vascular risk
factors to maintain cognitive function. The preventive
role of different drug groups with contrasting actions on
the cascades of molecular events that lead to vascular
disease also needs to be investigated. Aspirin has a 30
year track record as a candidate for overall reduction of
cardiovascular risk. The womens health study offered
a golden opportunity to examine its potential to delay
cognitive decline.
The study by Kang and colleagues
found no sig-
nificant difference in cognitive function at any of the
three assessments (the first one on average 5.6 years
after randomisation) administered every two years. The
mean difference in decline in the global score from the
first to the final cognitive assessment was 0.01 (95%
confidence interval 0.02 to 0.04). The study recruited
healthy women over 45 and achieved high follow-up
rates. Efforts were made to control for confounders
(smoking, alcohol, exercise, body mass index, blood
pressure, diabetes, and incident depressive and vascular
disease). High completion rates of repeated cognitive
assessment using telephone administered tests with pre-
specified “real worldoutcome measures in a large well
powered study allow conclusions to be drawn about the
lack of effect of aspirin on cognition in this population.
Limitations—including sampling bias towards inclu-
sion of white American women with low morbidity
preclude generalising the results to other populations
at higher risk, and of course to men. Doctors who pre-
scribe aspirin will be aware of the gastrointestinal com-
plications identified in this study.
In addition, cognitive function was assessed by tele-
phone interview, and was therefore entirely verbal and
dependent on memory. This may seem reasonable
when memory impairment is a core concept in research
into dementia. However, there is a contrary view that
the prodrome of Alzheimers disease (the most com-
mon form of dementia) extends beyond memory loss
to include deficits in executive functions, mental speed,
and attention,
and that visuospatial learning may also
be important. These reports, with others, lead to the
proposition that the early signs of dementia arise not
from selective damage to key anatomical (“bottleneck”)
structures crucial for verbal memory, but from pathol-
ogy that breaks connections between brain structures
serving several cognitive domains.
In these terms,
impairment of verbal memory alone is not the best early
indicator of the dementia prodrome—deficits in atten-
tion and executive function are better predictors. Some
For the full versions of these articles and the references see
Lawrence J Whalley
professor of mental health,
University of Aberdeen
Donald H R Mowat
consultant and clinical director in
old age psychiatry
Department of Old Age Psychiatry,
Royal Cornhill Hospital, Aberdeen,
Grampian AB25 2ZH
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review:
Commissioned; not externally peer
BMJ 2007;334:961-2
doi: 10.1136/bmj.39204.473252.80
BMJ | 12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334 961
support for this “disconnection hypothesis” is derived
from the studys finding of impairments on category flu-
ency, a seemingly explicit task of memory requiring the
naming of as many animals as possible in one minute.
While interpretation of this test is complex—involving
effortful retrieval, loss of knowledge, and both directed
and sustained attention
—its potential importance as a
marker of frontal or executive integrity should not be
overlooked if premature conclusions on aspirin are to
be avoided.
Better quality research into cognitive decline in later
life is needed, but many pitfalls blight the road to suc-
cess. Ultimately, once multiple risk factors are identi-
fied, common pathways to the onset and prevention of
Alzheimers disease will be charted.
As this is achieved,
measurements and study designs will need to move away
from categorical approaches, and assess the confound-
ing effects of ill health in old age and to place people in
their correct social context in terms of dependency and
lifelong cognitive abilities. The US health and retirement
study design is informative about many of these issues.
Ongoing developments into the sources of individual dif-
ferences in cognitive ageing acting across the life course
will provide some solutions to these taxing methodologi-
cal problems.
1 Manly JJ, Bell-McGinty S, Tang MX, Schupf N, Stern Y, Mayeux R.
Implementing diagnostic criteria and estimating frequency of
mild cognitive impairment in an urban community. Arch Neurol
2 Kang JH, Cook N, Manson J-A, Buring JE, Grodstein F. Low dose
aspirin and cognitive function in the women’s health study
cognitive cohort. BMJ 2007 doi:
3 Szekely CA, Thorne JE, Zandi PP, Ek M, Messias E, Breitner JC, et al.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for the prevention of
Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review. Neuroepidemiology
4 Forette F, Seux ML, Staessen JA, Thijs L, Babarskiene MR, Babeanu S,
et al. Systolic hypertension in Europe investigators. The prevention
of dementia with antihypertensive treatment: new evidence from
the systolic hypertension in Europe (Syst-Eur) study. Arch Intern
Med 2002;162:2046-52. Erratum in: Arch Intern Med
5 Durga J, van Boxtel MP, Schouten EG, Kok FJ, Jolles J, Katan MB, et al.
Effect of 3-year folic acid supplementation on cognitive function in
older adults in the FACIT trial: a randomised, double blind, controlled
trial. Lancet 2007;369:208-16.
6 Lim WS, Gammack JK, Van Niekerk J, Dangour AD. Omega 3 fatty
acid for the prevention of dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev
7 Tabert MH, Manly JJ, Liu X, Pelton GH, Rosenblum S, Jacobs M, et al.
Neuropsychological prediction of conversion to Alzheimer disease
in patients with mild cognitive impairment. Arch Gen Psychiatry
8 Rapp MA, Reischies FM. Attention and executive control predict
Alzheimer disease in late life: results from the Berlin aging
study (BASE). Am J Geriatr Psychiatry 2005;13:134-41.
9 Deary IJ, Bastin ME, Pattie A, Clayden JD, Whalley LJ, Starr JM, et
al. White matter integrity and cognition in childhood and old age.
Neurology 2005;55:505-12.
10 Henry JD, Crawford JR, Phillips LH. Verbal fluency performance in
dementia of the Alzheimer type: a meta-analysis. Neuropsychologia
11 Mattson MP. Pathways towards and away from Alzheimer’s disease.
Nature 2004;430:631-9.
12 Health and Retirement Study Group. The health and retirement
study. A longitudinal study of health, retirement, and aging.
13 Whalley LJ, Dick F, McNeill G. A life-course approach to the aetiology
of late-onset dementias. Lancet Neurol 2006;5:87-96.
962 BMJ |12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334
Some bereaved people develop severe long term reac-
tions to their loss. This kind of reaction may be asso-
ciated with adverse health outcomes and has recently
been termed “complicated grief.”
The syndrome is
more common after unexpected and violent deaths such
as suicide.
2 3
People bereaved by suicide are also more
likely than those bereaved by other deaths to experience
stigmatisation, shame, guilt, and a sense of rejection.
People going through normal or uncomplicated grief
reactions after a death usually do not need or benefit
from specific interventions other than support—indeed
these may be contraindicated.
The potentially severe
implications for people who develop complicated grief
suggest, however, that special treatment may be indi-
cated. But are these interventions effective?
The randomised controlled trial reported by de Groot
and colleagues in this week’s BMJ is one of few evalu-
ations in this field.
The findings indicate that provi-
sion of a cognitive behaviour counselling programme
of four sessions to relatives and spouses bereaved by
suicide between three and six months after the death
may have some benefits compared with usual care.
Thus, while treatment groups did not differ at 13 months
after the death in prevalence of complicated grief, the
programme seemed to help prevent maladaptive grief
reactions and perceptions of blame for the death.
This study highlights the question of how compli-
cated grief differs from normal grief, and other possible
bereavement outcomes, and how clinicians—especially
in primary care—should best manage people at risk.
A syndrome of complicated grief has been proposed
for inclusion in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American
Psychiatric Association.
In contrast to uncomplicated
grief, people with complicated grief seem to be in a
state of chronic mourning. The proposed criteria require
that the bereaved person has persistent and disruptive
yearning, pining, and longing for the deceased. The
criteria include four out of eight symptoms that must
be experienced frequently or to a severely distressing
and disruptive degree (or both). The eight symptoms
are trouble accepting the death, inability to trust others
since the death, excessive bitterness related to the death,
uneasiness about moving on with life, detachment from
other people to whom the person was previously close,
the feeling that life is now meaningless, the view that
the future holds no prospect for fulfilment, and agita-
tion since the death. Importantly, to fulfil the diagno-
sis these symptoms must have persisted for at least six
months. They must also have resulted in considerable
Keith Hawton
professor of psychiatry
University of Oxford, Department
of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital,
Oxford OX3 7JX
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review:
Commissioned; not externally peer
BMJ 2007;334:962-3
Complicated grief after bereavement
Psychological interventions may be effective
BMJ | 12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334 963
impairment in social, occupational, and other major
areas of functioning.
Complicated grief may be associ-
ated with increased risk of cancer, hypertension, car-
diac events, and suicidal ideation,
plus adverse health
behaviours such as increased smoking and alcohol
Although complicated grief is associated with
an increased risk of depressive disorders, it is clearly
distinguished from depression.
Detection of people at risk is important. Sudden
unexpected deaths appear to be associated with greater
risk. Risk is also increased if the relationship with the
deceased person was a dependent one. Other factors
include early family experiences that may have under-
mined the person’s sense of security—such as abuse
and neglect or separation anxiety—and lack of a sup-
portive network.
Practitioners may therefore be able
to identify some people at risk. However, given the
usual limitations of using risk factors for determining
prognosis, monitoring the bereaved through occasional
brief contact will also be important, especially as people
who develop complicated grief may be reluctant to seek
help from clinicians.
This will also provide opportunity
for giving support. For people bereaved by suicide, self
help can be encouraged through recommended read-
ing material.
But what can be done to help people at risk, or those
identified with a complicated grief reaction? The results
of the trial by de Groot and colleagues indicate that
specific interventions at an early stage may be helpful
for people at risk who have experienced a sudden loss.
The brevity of the intervention (four sessions) makes
it attractive, although replication and improved results
of such an intervention would increase confidence in
recommending it. Once complicated grief has been
identified, a more intensive approach designed to treat
the condition seems to be effective, especially for people
who have experienced a sudden violent loss.
sion of cognitive behaviour therapy through an interac-
tive internet based programme has also had impressive
Development of more resources to manage
complicated grief is clearly required, together with fur-
ther evaluations. However, current evidence indicates
that not only is complicated grief a serious adverse out-
come of bereavement, but that it may be dealt with
effectively through carefully designed interventions.
1 Zhang B, El-Jawahri A, Prigerson HG. Update on bereavement
research: evidence-based guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment
of complicated bereavement. J Palliat Med 2006;9:1188-203.
2 Mitchell AM, Kim Y, Prigerson HG, Mortimer MK. Complicated grief
and suicidal ideation in adult survivors of suicide. Suicide Life Threat
Behav 2005;35:498-506.
3 de Groot MH, de Keijser J, Neeleman J. Grief shortly after suicide and
natural death: a comparitive study among spouses and first-degree
relatives. Suicide Life Threat Behav 2006;36:418-31.
4 Jordan JR. Is suicide bereavement different? A reassessment of the
literature. Suicide Life Threat Behav 2001;31:91-102.
5 Jordan JR, Neimeyer RA. Does grief counselling work? Death Studies
2003;2 :765-86.
6 de Groot M, de Keijser J, Neeleman J, Kerkhof A, Nolen W, Burger H.
Cognitive behaviour therapy to prevent complicated grief among
relatives and spouses bereaved by suicide: cluster randomised
controlled trial. BMJ 2007 doi:
7 Prigerson HG, Bierhals AJ, Kasl SV, Reynolds CF 3rd, Shear MK, Day N,
et al. Traumatic grief as a risk factor for mental and physical morbidity.
Am J Psychiatry 1997;154:616-23.
8 Boelen PA, Van Den Bout J, de Keijser J. Traumatic grief as a disorder
distinct from bereavement-related depression and anxiety: a
replication study with bereaved mental health care patients. Am J
Psychiatry 2003;160:1339-41.
9 Department of Health. Help is at hand: a resource for people bereaved
by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death. London: DoH, 2006.
10 Shear K, Frank E, Houck PR, Reynolds CF. Treatment of complicated
grief: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2005;293:2601-8.
11 Wagner B, Knaevelsrud C, Maercker A. Internet-based cognitive-
behavioral therapy for complicated grief: a randomized controlled
trial. Death Studies 2006;30:429-53.
Socioeconomic differences in health have been
described since the 16th and 17th centuries,
1 2
but only
recently has reducing them been central to public health
policy in many Western countries.
Over the past three
decades, epidemiological studies have confirmed the
existence of socioeconomic inequalities in a range of
health outcomes, including premature mortality, car-
diovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, self reported ill
health, and smoking related cancers, and have explored
potential mechanisms linking lower socioeconomic posi-
tion to poorer health.
The Whitehall cohort studies
have made important contributions to this literature.
Several studies,
including a publication from White-
hall II,
have found that poorer socioeconomic position
is associated with worse morbidity, mortality, and self
reported health in older people. In this week’s BMJ, a
new analysis of data from Whitehall II by Chandola
and colleagues examines the extent to which socioeco-
nomic inequalities in self reported physical and mental
health continue into older age.
The paper adds to the
literature by using repeated measures of socioeconomic
position and self reported health, both of which may
change with age. The paper demonstrates one of the
strengths of prospective cohort studies—the ability to
examine changing relations between health related
characteristics over time.
Three key messages emerge: firstly, self reported
physical health declines with age in all groups (women
and men, people who are retired and those who con-
tinue work, and people in all employment grades); sec-
ondly, in contrast, self reported mental health increases
in all groups; and thirdly the rate of decline in physical
health with age is greater in those from lower employ-
ment grades than those from higher employment grades,
which results in a widening of health inequalities with
Debbie A Lawlor
professor of epidemiology
Jonathan A C Sterne
professor of medical statistics and
Department of Social Medicine,
University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 2PR
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review:
Commissioned; not externally peer
BMJ 2007;334:963-4
Socioeconomic inequalities in health
Are important but the effects of age and sex may be overlooked
964 BMJ | 12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334
The authors focus specifically on socioeconomic in-
equalities. But their repeated measurements and
detailed analyses allow other inequalities to be
explored. Figure 2 in their paper shows the trajectories
of health change with age by occupational grade for the
final phase (2002-4) of the study. However, the authors
do not highlight that the interactions of age with time
period included in their statistical model suggest that
these trajectories changed over time. We calculated the
trajectories of physical and mental health for each time
period that the study covered using data from the full
results of model I, presented in the appendix to the
paper (figs 1 and 2).
We found that in the first period
(1991-3) physical health did not decline with increasing
age, and during the rest of the 1990s the decline in self
reported physical health with age was much less pro-
nounced than that seen since 2000 (fig 1). With respect
to self reported mental health, in the early 1990s the
increase with age was more noticeably linear—continu-
ing to increase into later older age—than in more recent
years, where at older age the improvement in mental
health flattens off (fig 2). The differing impressions given
by trajectories in the different periods are a reminder
of how difficult it can be to summarise the results of
complex statistical models in a transparent way.
These findings suggest that people in recent years
perceive a greater decline in their physical health and
a smaller improvement in their mental health as they
age than people did a decade ago. Reasons underlying
this cannot be determined from the data presented, but
continued reporting in the media of the “burden” of an
older population, together with changing roles of the
family and society, and changing attitudes in society
towards care for older people might be important.
The results of the statistical model also show that
sex is the strongest predictor of physical health; the
physical scores of the women in the reference group
were, on average, 2.65 points lower than those for the
men in that group. This compares to a difference of
1.60 points between the lowest and highest employ-
ment grades in this group. Women also reported worse
mental health (difference of 1.96 points on the mental
health score). As the authors report no evidence of
statistical interaction between sex and age, the results
suggest that the sex differences found in the reference
age persist as people get older.
In summary, the full model results suggest that socio-
economic inequalities in self reported health persist
and possibly widen with age, that the relation between
age and self reported health changes over time, and
that women have worse self reported health than men
at all ages and time points.
The implications of the findings for public health
are uncertain because the meaning of differences of
this size in self reported physical or mental health
is unclear. A difference of 1 in the short form 36
(SF-36) score probably corresponds to 0.05-0.07 of
a standard deviation: in previous UK based studies
the standard deviation has ranged from 15-20, with
similar means to those published in table 1 of the
Quantifying similar trajectories for objective
health outcomes (such as blood pressure, fasting and
postload glucose, lipid values, incident diabetes, and
cardiovascular disease) that have a clearer meaning to
clinicians, public health practitioners, and the public,
and exploring how these change with socioeconomic
position, age, and sex over different time periods, is
something that Whitehall II can do and that we look
forward to seeing.
1 Whitehead M. Life and death over the millennium. In: Drever F,
Whitehead M, eds. Health inequalities. London: Stationery Office,
2 Mackenbach JP. Social inequality and death as illustrated in late-
medieval death dances. Am J Public Health 1995;85:1285-92.
3 WHO. A strategy for health for all: revised targets. Copenhagen: WHO,
4 Davey Smith G, Lynch J. Life course approaches to socioeconomic
differentials in health. In: Kuh D, Ben-Shlomo Y, eds. A life course
approach to chronic disease epidemiology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004:77-115.
5 University College London Department of Epidemiology and Public
Health. Whitehall II study.
6 Forbes WF, Hayward LM, Agwani N. Factors associated with the
prevalence of various self-reported impairments among older people
residing in the community. Can J Public Health 1991;82:240-4.
7 Parker MG, Thorslund M, Lundberg O. Physical function and social class
among Swedish oldest old. J Gerontol 1994;49:S196-201.
8 Sakari-Rantala R, Heikkinen E, Ruoppila I. Difficulties in mobility
among elderly people and their association with socioeconomic
factors, dwelling environment and use of services. Aging Milano
Mental health
Employment grade
Mental healthMental health
50 55 60 65 70 75
Fig 2 |
Trajectories of age
related mental health
component in Whitehall
II cohort, predicted from
model I of Chandola and
Physical health
Employment grade
Physical healthPhysical health
50 55 60 65 70 75
Fig 1 |
Trajectories of age
related short form 36
(SF-36) physical health
in Whitehall II cohort,
predicted from model I of
Chandola and colleagues
In the worst case scenario, a pandemic of influenza
in the United Kingdom would cause 750 000 excess
deaths. In the short term, gross domestic product
could fall by some 0.75%, and in the longer term the
cost to the nation could be around £170bn (€250bn;
On 16 March 2007, the Department of Health and
the Cabinet Office jointly published a new draft plan
for pandemic flu.
The plan builds on and replaces
the October 2005 plan.
It is supported by a range of
additional documents related to acute hospitals, health
care in the community,
anoperational and strategic
framework” for adults in social care,
guidelines for
staff in social care settings,
ambulance services,
an ethical framework.
Some documents offer strategic
guidance, some offer operational guidance, and others
guidance for individuals. Comments are requested on
all draft documents by 16 May 2007.
The purpose of the framework is to set out the gov-
ernment’s strategic approach to limit the domestic
spread of a pandemic and minimise harms to health,
the economy, and society. The document proposes a
national framework within which organisations respon-
sible for planning, delivering, or supporting local
responses should develop and maintain integrated
operational arrangements. The framework has many
Firstly, it makes explicit assumptions that guide the
strategy—for example, in relation to clinical attack rates
and estimates of excess deaths that might follow. In
addition, explicit policy assumptions are delineated for
planning purposes. These deal with important themes
such as transport policy (for example, travel restric-
tions, health screening,nancial support to airlines),
international policy (such as repatriation issues, medi-
cal assistance to British nationals overseas), essential
services, education and social mixing, broadcasting,
pharmaceutical interventions, communications, and
response and coordination. These issues have previ-
ously been neglected by many national strategic plans.
Moreover, the policy assumptions are strategically
linked to World Health Organization pandemic flu
phases. The assumptions concur with WHO advice,
again an area neglected in many national strategic
plans and something likely to result in problems for
international coordination and cooperation.
4 5
In their February 2007 report on the status of
European Union preparedness for pandemic flu, the
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
(ECDC) highlighted several neglected areas.
of these was making plans operational at local level,
which is a profound challenge for all countries. The
range of documents in this consultation exercise sug-
gests this remains a testing exercise for the Department
of Health.
In the UK, as the new plan makes clear, the pri-
mary responsibility for planning and responding to any
major emergency rests with local organisations, acting
individually and collectively through local “resilience
forums.” Thus, operational planning will be guided by
central government but will need to be implemented
locally. However, can timely and effective implementa-
tion in a time of crisis be achieved under a devolved
system? If it can, then preplanning is crucial—and these
documents highlight the amount of planning needed
at the local level.
The UK’s operational plans remain under develop-
ment. A checklist for how the arms of the health system
relate to health care in a community setting offers a
useful way forward. However, this tells organisations
only what needs to be done—not how to do it—and
similar checklists are not available for all stakeholder
organisations. Moreover, no structured mechanism
exists through which organisations can draw from the
lessons of others or ensure their operational plans are
similar to others. Monitoring implementation of local
operational plans will be important to avoid chaos in
a crisis.
Some resources—such as strain specific vaccine, anti-
virals, and antibiotics—may be in short supply. It is
unclear who will receive them, how and where priority
decisions will be made, and whether responses across
local areas will be consistent. While the framework
outlines a variety of options, the document offers little
guidance for local planners. The linked ethical frame-
work document largely avoids the issue of prioritisa-
tion; it takes a medical (rather than a public health)
approach and mostly neglects the strategic aims.
It could be that some people may be deemed more
worthy of receiving treatment or prevention resources
because of their impact on transmission dynamics, pub-
lic health, the economy, or on mitigating “social harm.”
But this issue is not dealt with. Some countries’ plans
offer more explicit guidance on the controversial issue
of how to allocate scarce resources.
This is not simply
an abstract moral dilemma. Further guidance from the
Department of Health is promised.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a dry run for
pandemic flu, taught us thatthere should be clarity
established beforehand, as to what decisions are taken
at what level and by whom during an epidemic.”
acute crises, devolved authority tests health systems
differently from top-down systems.
Indeed, the gov-
ernment’s generic guidance, “emergency response and
recovery,” referred to in the framework, outlines eight
guiding principles. Among these is preparedness, “all
organisations and individuals that might have a role to
play in emergency response and recovery should be
properly prepared and be clear about their roles and
Concern persists at local level that
current plans for pandemic flu in the UK do not take
account of what we have learnt from the experience
Richard Coker
reader in public health
Health Policy Unit, London School
of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,
London WC1E 7HT
Competing interests: RC has
received funding from F Hoffmann-
La Roche, various governments,
and the European Commission
and has received honorariums
and reimbursements from F
Hoffmann-La Roche, governments,
the European Commission, and the
European Presidency
Provenance and peer review:
Commissioned; not externally peer
BMJ 2007;334:965-6
doi: 10.1136/bmj.39205.591389.80
UK preparedness for pandemic influenza
Devolving responsibility to local authorities may not be the best policy
BMJ | 12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334 965
with severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Ultimately, it will be a remarkable achievement if
devolved operational authority is successful. History
suggests that the political imperative in a national
(indeed global) crisis will be to centralise strategic and
operational authority. If this happens then much of
the planning could be redundant and an alternative
approach might be needed.
1 Department of Health. Pandemic influenza: a national
framework for responding to an influenza pandemic. 2007.
2 Department of Health. UK Health Departments’ influenza
pandemic contingency plan. 2005.
3 Department of Health. Supporting guidance. 2007.
4 Mounier-Jack S, Coker RJ. How prepared is Europe for pandemic
influenza? Analysis of national plans. Lancet 2006;367:1405-11.
5 Mounier-Jack S, Jas R, Coker RJ. Progress and lacunae in European
national strategic plans for pandemic influenza. Bull World Health
Organ (in press).
On 1 July 2007 smoking will be banned from most
enclosed public places and workplaces in England,
with fines for people who break the law.
The govern-
ment of the United Kingdom estimates that this will
result in a fall of 1.7 percentage points in the preva-
lence of smoking in England and an estimated annual
saving of £100m (€147m; $200m) to the National
Health Service.
National legislation inevitably puts pressure on local
health services to deliver its promises. Yet timely and
reliable information to help implement and monitor
public health policies like smoking cessation is not
always easy to find. Public health information exists
in many forms in disparate locations. The UK govern-
ment recognises the lack of a comprehensive collec-
tion of information for public health, and attempts are
being made to rectify this.
Data, evidence, and narrative information form
the three main types of public health information.
Data—which is quantitative—usually describes a health
service by its inputs (such as financial), outputs (such
as hospital activity), and outcomes (such as survival
rates). When displayed as trends over time or compari-
sons between places such data can be powerful. Sec-
ondly we have evidence, which comes from published
research. Finally, we have narrative—qualitative infor-
mation based on the experience and insights of people
who use and provide a health service—the equivalent
of a patient’s history as recorded by a doctor.
Information on public health is less readily acces-
sible than that available to colleagues working in more
clinical settings, and it is time consuming to find. Prac-
tising public health practitioners also need tools and
worked examples that can be applied to their local
A new online service from the BMJ Publishing
Group, BMJ Health Intelligence, aims to fill this gap.
It takes essential public health topics and “unpacks”
them, putting data, evidence, and examples of good
practice into context in a way that is easy to find and
apply. This same easy approach is being developed by
BMJ Health Intelligence to support commissioning,
especially for general practitioners (GPs) who have
little experience in this area.
As gatekeepers to secondary care and with a com-
mitment to a defined practice population, GPs can
exert considerable influence over hospital referrals
and activity in secondary health care. They also have
access to accurate information about the numbers and
types of referrals from their computerised information
systems and have considerable knowledge about the
health of the local population.
The Department of Health in England has rec-
ognised GPs’ vantage point and given them a lead
role in practice based commissioning. This makes it
even more important for GPs to see their acutely ill
patients within the wider context of the whole popula-
tion. Despite this obligation to get involved in commis-
sioning, many GPs have little time to consider these
wider health issues. To overcome this, interested GP
should be encouraged to acquire public health skills
and work alongside their public health colleagues.
BMJ Health Intelligence is also developing support
for GP commissioners with easy access to evidence,
data, tools, and examples of good practice. This will
help establish the necessary long term relationships
between primary and secondary health care and shape
local patient pathways within a finite budget.
In clinical medicine, an intervention cannot be pro-
moted without some evidence of effectiveness. In public
health, where funding is even more limited than in other
specialties, it is even more imperative that interventions
are both cost effective and clinically effective. Evidence
is not always available, but where it does exist the serv-
ice offered by BMJ Health Intelligence classifies it into
what works, what may work, and what doesn’t work.
The service—which launches this month—has been
built with contributions from practitioners, and it
will continue to evolve with users’ feedback. When
the smoking ban comes into force on 1 July 2007,
those who provide services for smokers will be better
Bringing public health information together
A new online service should benefit public health practitioners and GPs
involved in commissioning
966 BMJ | 12 MAY 2007 | VOLUME 334
Alison Walker
editor, BMJ Health Intelligence
BMJ Publishing Group Limited,
London WC1H 9JR
Peter Brambleby
consultant in public health and
honorary senior lecturer
Norfolk Primary Care Trust and
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Competing interests: AW is the
editor of BMJ Health Intelligence.
PB is a contributor to BMJ Health
Provenance and peer review:
Commissioned; not externally peer
BMJ 2007;334:966
doi: 10.1136/bmj.39210.438981.BE