Move to bring back medical officer of health

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 25 January 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:247
  1. Jack Warden, parliamentary correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Two Scottish MPs have called for the restoration of the post of medical officer of health in the wake of the outbreak of Escherichia coli food poisoning in Scotland.

    Dr Lewis Moonie, a former consultant in public health, and Sam Galbraith, a consultant neurosurgeon, have produced a paper, which has been referred by the Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, to the Pennington inquiry on the outbreak.

    The Labour MPs argue in the paper that health authorities have become complacent about the threat from infectious disease, and they call for the restoration of the post of medical officer of health, who would have the skills and authority to take effective action in a public health emergency such as an outbreak of E coli infection.

    Mr Forsyth said in the Commons that he was inclined to agree that one person should be in charge and that he or she should be a health professional, but this was a matter for Professor Pennington to reflect on further. He said that the proposal in the MPs' paper was well argued.

    Drs Moonie and Galbraith argue that the E coli outbreak in Scotland shows how wrong it is to suggest that the infectious diseases that once killed so many people have been conquered by antibiotics, immunisation, and better social conditions. They point to the proliferation of drug resistant strains of tuberculosis, as well as to AIDS, salmonella, listeria, and now E coli. Moreover, they believe that the main killers today, heart disease and cancer, would respond better in the long term to preventive measures rather than the as yet limited attempts at cure.

    The MPs assert that the abolition of the post of medical officer of health has been the most damaging of all the changes to the health service and that it is now time to think again. They suggest that the officer should be appointed by the secretary of state after local consultation and have the duty of writing an annual report on the public health in his or her area, to which NHS trusts and health authorities would be obliged to respond with action.

    Similar powers and qualifications should apply to the government's chief medical officers. The MPs state that the practice of appointing chief medical officers with no formal training in public health should also be reconsidered.

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