Skunk cannabis and swine flu worry MPs at Health questions

June 24, 2009 at 2:08 pm 1 comment

The effect of cannabis on mental health and the potential spread of swine flu on commercial flights were among the issues raised with Health ministers yesterday.

Tory MP Ann Winterton said studies show that heavy users of skunk, a strong form of cannabis, are more liable to develop schizophrenia.

“In fact, the risk to them is 40 per cent. greater. How can the Government combat that, because there are serious long-term effects? In fact, the problem could be described as a mental health time bomb,” she said.

Gillian Merron, the new Minister of State at the Department of Health, said there is not enough research evidence to be clear about any extra risks posed to mental health resulting from skunk cannabis use.

“Because of public concern and the kind of issues that have been raised, that despite the fact that what we know so far is that there is a probable but weak causal link, we have promoted the FRANK campaign, which has the slogan, “cannabis can mess with your mind”, and we will continue to do that,” she said.

Ms Merron told MPs that cannabis use is declining but the use of more potent cannabis such as skunk is increasing.

Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, asked for research into the impact of khat, “which is a legal drug, but which causes real concern in the Somali community, where its use is widespread.”

Her colleague Paul Flynn condemned the “hysterical, evidence-free hyperbole, an example of which we heard this afternoon,” over skunk and urged MPs to heed the “scientific, evidence-based advice” from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Brian Iddon asked why patients who have contracted the hepatitis C virus from contaminated blood are not getting the same compensation as those who contracted HIV from contaminated blood.

Ms Merron said: “It is the different circumstances of patients that are reflected in the different financial arrangements.

“We will review the Skipton fund, which was set up for those infected with hepatitis C, in 2014, 10 years after its commencement.”

The swine flu pandemic was discussed at length.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the total laboratory-confirmed UK cases as of 22 June is 2,905.

Worldwide there are more than 52,000 cases.

“An interim national pandemic flu service has been tested and could be mobilised within a week,” he told MPs.

“Primary care trusts have put in place a support structure for this service.

“Discussions with manufacturers about our purchase of vaccine are at an advanced stage.”

Tory MP Andrew Mackay said the national flu hotline is not operational and asked if the NHS will be able to cope.

“An interim flu line service is available and could be up and running within a week,” Mr Burnham told MPs.

“We have also made preparations to ensure that the full national pandemic flu service will be available to be switched on in the autumn if it is needed.

“Our preparations are good and we remain in a position to ensure that patients are not put at risk.”

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the national pandemic flu line was supposed to be ready by April or May 2009 and asked why it had been delayed.

Mr Burnham said it is “absolutely right” that the service was tested in detail.

“There have been examples in other areas where national telephone lines or internet services have not been able to cope at the point that they went live. That cannot be the case here.”

Mr Lansley said that in March the Department of Health said that the service would be ready in April or May.

“Clearly the Department must have felt that it was close to implementation,” he said.

“Was it because the Treasury refused to sign the contract? Was it because BT was holding the Department to ransom on the NHS IT programme?

“Why precisely was there a delay of several months that had not been expected in March?”

Mr Burnham said that because of the outbreak, “the full solution was put on hold while interim solutions were developed. When the service goes live, it will have to be able to cope with demand.”

Lib Dem MP John Hemming was worried about the risks from air travel, “which is almost a mechanism for cross-infection.”

“What reviews have the Government carried out on what should be done on planes, not necessarily for this virus, whose symptoms are not so severe, but for future more serious infections?” he asked.

Mr Burnham said only that “we take advice at all times from the Government’s scientific advisory group,” and “we keep all scenarios under consideration.”

Brent North MP Barry Gardiner called for isolation units around the country, “particularly close to major centres where there is immigration, such as Heathrow,” ahead of the expected outbreak in the autumn.

Mr Burnham said he is acting to ensure that the NHS is able to cope with the “extra demand that it will face over the coming months, and particularly over the coming winter period.”

“Obviously, the availability of isolation facilities and critical care facilities is important, but it is also important to say, for the avoidance of doubt, that for the vast majority of people this has been a mild condition from which they have been able to make a speedy recovery.

“In a small minority of cases—I stress that it is a small minority of cases—the symptoms have been more severe.

“Obviously, we will take advice from the scientific advisers as we know more about this particular disease.”


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