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“We Can’t Wait to Eliminate Hepatitis C”

Health Minister Robin Swann has praised the work of a specialist team of nurses and doctors in their efforts to eliminate Hepatitis C in Northern Ireland.

To mark World Hepatitis Day, the Minister met staff from the Belfast Health Inclusion Service and the Royal Victoria Hospital Hepatology team. They run vital outreach services for those most at risk of contracting the blood-borne virus that can infect the liver and, if left untreated, cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage over many years, including liver cancer.

World Hepatitis Day is observed each year on 28 July to raise awareness of hepatitis. This year’s theme is “Hepatitis can’t wait”, conveying the urgency of efforts needed to eliminate the disease as a public health threat. Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Public Health Agency published a new action plan to eliminate Hepatitis C in Northern Ireland by 2025.

Minister Swann said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the devastating impact of infectious disease, but it has also demonstrated what can be achieved when we work together in innovative and collaborative ways across the Health and Social Care system and the wider community.

“I am very encouraged by the significant progress that has been made in efforts to eliminate Hepatitis C which affects some of the most vulnerable in our society, particularly within the homeless community and those with a history of injecting drug use.

“The hard work, dedication and commitment of the Belfast Health Inclusion Service and the RVH Hepatology team is making a real difference in the lives of people infected with or at risk of contracting Hepatitis C.”

The Department of Health is committed to the elimination of Hepatitis C as a public health threat in Northern Ireland by 2025. Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride chairs the Hepatitis C elimination plan oversight group. He said:

“There is now great hope for those infected with Hepatitis C. The introduction of new oral therapies has helped cure over 97% of people treated.  Treating Hepatitis C at a pre-symptomatic stage prevents serious complications such as liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Curing those who are currently infected will prevent onward transmission, and therefore minimise the number of new cases arising. I commend the work of our specialist teams who are reaching out to those most at risk and making a real difference to their lives.”

The Royal Victoria Hospital Hepatology team introduced outreach clinics in settings such as the Belfast Inclusion Health Service, addiction centres and the prisons. Throughout the pandemic they have treated 126 patients positive for Hepatitis C. Of these, 51 patients were treated through the outreach services working around the challenges of lockdown, restriction of services, social distancing and staff redeployment.

Susan Semple, Health Co-ordinator, said: “The Belfast Inclusion Health Service has been at the frontline of eliminating Hepatitis C since 2016. We recognise the extreme health and social inequalities faced by those who come through our doors and our dedicated multidisciplinary team provide a trauma informed caring environment for individuals to receive vital health and social care. Joined up working, innovation in service delivery and flexibility in access criteria are key to the success of  eliminating blood borne viruses for this population.”

Dr Gillian Armstrong, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “World Hepatitis Day is a timely reminder that Hepatitis can’t wait, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are working hard with our partners to raise awareness and testing of Hepatitis and make treatment as accessible as possible. We have an opportunity to make Hepatitis B and C diseases of the past. I would encourage people who may be at risk to get tested and to remember that there is an effective vaccine for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can be cured.”

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Launch of £5million ‘Healthy Happy Minds’ pilot for primary schools

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has announced the start of the Healthy Happy Minds pilot to support therapeutic & counselling services in primary schools.

The pilot service will include all primary schools, special schools with a primary cohort and primary EOTAS provision and will run until the end of March 2022.

Speaking at the launch event in Brooklands Primary School, Michelle McIlveen said: “I welcome today’s launch of the Healthy Happy Minds £5million therapeutic & counselling service. Crucially it will allow pupils in all primary schools to participate in therapeutic & counselling services until the end of March 2022.

“The Healthy Happy Minds pilot is one of a range of measures supporting the implementation of the ‘Children and Young People’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Education Framework’, providing support to primary school pupils with an aim to prevent and reduce mental health issues.

“When we consider that 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14, the importance of promoting emotional health and wellbeing at the earliest stage is clear.”

Schools will receive allocations directly, 50% immediately and 50% in January 2022, to secure appropriate support for their children.

The Minister continued: “Alongside counselling, the Healthy Happy Minds pilot provides opportunity for a broad range of therapeutic interventions to be tested at primary school level including play, drama, music, art and equine assisted therapy & learning.

“Transitional arrangements will also operate beyond the end of March 2022 to ensure that no child engaging with counselling/therapeutic services is left unsupported.”

The Healthy Happy Minds pilot will be subject to an independent evaluation to determine the appropriateness of these interventions for primary schools going forward.

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Nursing and Midwifery ‘Leaders of the Future’

Health Minister Robin Swann has said nurses and midwives have a massive opportunity to influence and contribute to the successful Transformation of Health and Social Care Services.

He was speaking at a presentation ceremony for 30 young nurses and midwives graduating from Northern Ireland’s Nightingale Challenge Global Leadership Development Programme (GLDP).

The GLDP is a bespoke leadership programme commissioned by Chief Nursing Officer, Professor Charlotte McArdle.

It was developed for 30 Northern Ireland nurses and midwives, across all Trusts, under the age of 35 who have a passionate interest in improving health locally and globally.

Congratulating graduates of the programme, the Minister said: “I know that the programme has helped to develop your global leadership and partnership working skills. It’s fantastic to hear that you have all grasped the opportunity to develop yourselves as senior and strategic leaders of the future.

“The transformation of our health and social care services is essential if we are to provide a modern and fit for purpose model of delivering health and social care. Nurses and midwives are one the largest work force in delivering care and accordingly I believe that they have a massive opportunity to both influence and contribute to the success of the Transformation Agenda.”

The Minister also took the opportunity to praise the outstanding contribution of nurses and midwives in the course of the Covid pandemic.

“This programme is of special significance to me. Back in January 2020, my first action as Health Minister was to officially launch the programme as part of Northern Ireland’s celebration of the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.

“The participants were some of the first Health and Social Care staff that I was introduced to in my role. Whilst we were all aware at that time that they would face significant challenges none of us could have predicted just how vast those challenges would be.”

The Minister continued: “Since then I have been privileged to witness first-hand just how hard our nursing and midwifery professionals, and their teams, are working. You have adapted and overcome, whilst continuing to provide the best treatment, care and support possible, often in very complex clinical situations and changing circumstances.

“In presenting these medals to acknowledge your completion of the programme I can only once again thank you and all your colleagues across the health service family for your continued professionalism, and dedication.”

Chief Nursing Officer, Professor Charlotte McArdle, also took the opportunity to congratulate graduates on their achievements: “The purpose of the programme was to empower and develop you as the next generation of nurses and midwives, to learn as leaders, practitioners and advocates in health, and in turn allow you to play your part in strengthening nursing and midwifery in Northern Ireland by leading transformational change. You have all achieved this and more.”

Professor McArdle acknowledged that there is a still a significant challenge to rebuild the health service following Covid-19, but shared: “I have great comfort in knowing that the future of nursing and midwifery is in safe and capable hands.”

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