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UK authorities ease COVID testing requirements amid surge

Health authorities across the UK simplified COVID-19 testing requirements on Wednesday, a move designed to cut isolation times for many people and that may ease the staffing shortages that are hitting public services from hospitals to garbage collection amid an omicron-fueled surge in infections.

In another effort to bolster the economy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that pre-departure tests for people traveling to England will no longer be required because the omicron variant is so prevalent that travel restrictions meant to contain its spread are now meaningless. The tests had discouraged people from traveling overseas for fear they would get stuck abroad.

The moves came as the Cabinet backed Johnson's decision not to impose any further restrictions despite record COVID-19 infection levels. With indications that omicron is less severe than earlier variants and widespread vaccination curtailing serious illnesses, the government is sticking with light-touch controls imposed in mid-December.

“All these measures are balanced and proportionate ways of ensuring we can live with COVID without letting our guard down," Johnson told lawmakers.

The UK Health Security Agency said that from Jan. 11 people in England who test positive using a rapid lateral flow test will no longer need to confirm the result with a PCR test if they are asymptomatic.

The temporary move, which also was used early last year, will cut the time people who record a positive lateral flow test but don't have COVID-19 symptoms need to self-isolate. They will no longer need to wait for the result of a PCR test and then begin another seven days of isolation.

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“While cases of COVID continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs (lateral flow devices) can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation," said Jenny Harries, the agency's chief executive.

Health authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland quickly followed suit, with Northern Ireland making the change immediately. Scotland and Wales plan to introduce it starting Thursday.

Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move made sense.

“When the prevalence is high, and it is incredibly high at the moment, almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive," Edmunds said. “There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere."

But he cautioned that the change will mean authorities have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing to identify different mutations. The change also will mean that daily updates on confirmed cases — which come from PCR tests — "may need more careful interpretation,” he said.

Confirmed new infections over the last seven days jumped 40% from a week earlier, according to the latest government statistics.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tested positive for the coronavirus and missed the chance to grill Johnson about the government’s COVID-19 policies on Wednesday.

A string of National Health Service local organizations have declared "critical incidents" in recent days amid staff shortages. Hospitals in the Greater Manchester region said they would pause some non-urgent surgeries amid the rising impact of COVID-19 and worker absences.

Gillian Keegan, a junior minister at the UK Ministry of Health, acknowledged the strain in an interview with the BBC.

“Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalizations, and at this point in (winter) time when they always have extreme pressure," Keegan said.

There have also been cuts to train services and garbage is piling up on some city streets because of sanitation staff shortages.

NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor told the BBC he would support the new testing regime if scientists deem it safe.

“Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate," Taylor said. "Any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing."

An ambulance service in northeast England began advising patients with non-life-threatening conditions over the New Year's weekend to ask a relative to drive them to a hospital as waiting times for ambulances rose because of staff shortages and extra demand.

“It is still taking us too long to get an ambulance to patients. Unfortunately, due to this, patients remain at risk, which is unacceptable," North East Ambulance Service medical director Mathew Beattie said Wednesday.

He stressed, however, that "we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness.”

Opposition politicians and some public health experts have pressed the government to tighten restrictions on business and personal interactions as omicron sweeps across the country. Johnson has resisted their calls after almost 100 of his party’s lawmakers opposed mask requirements and other infection-control measures imposed last month.

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Read more:

COVID-19 patients showing less severe symptoms: UK vaccine minister

UK sets up ‘surge hubs’ in hospitals as omicron cases rise

UK government seeks to mitigate workforce disruption from omicron

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Healthpoint launches new procedure to help treat sleep apnea after success in 35-year-old patient

  • The new procedure provides same-day results and can help physicians identify and resolve underlying conditions that can cause high blood pressure or cardiac issues
  • It also helps diagnose patients with respiratory issues undetected by traditional screening options

Abu Dhabi, UAE; 06 February 2023: Healthpoint, a Mubadala Health partner, has introduced a new diagnostic procedure in the UAE that helps treat people with obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder that impairs breathing and results in poor sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when airflow is blocked during sleep. This causes the patient to stop breathing for a short period of time, which deprives the body and brain of oxygen. This interrupts sleep, causing loud snoring and choking noises, and results in the patient feeling tired, even after sleeping a full six to eight hours. Untreated, it often becomes the silent cause behind other common comorbidities such as hypertension, cardiac diseases, diabetes, and metabolic disorders, as well as strokes or heart attacks.

The patient who had been living in the UAE for five years, suffered from OSA. After trying many different traditional treatment options, including a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, he turned to Healthpoint’s multidisciplinary team, made up of specialists in sleep, anesthesiology, orthodontics and ear, nose and throat (ENT) issues.

Dr. Favas Thaivalappil recommended the newly introduced DISE-PSG procedure to the patient, and the team was able to use the comprehensive 3D evaluation procedure to diagnose and classify his complicated respiratory issue on the same day.

The DISE-PSG procedure involved an evaluation of the patient’s upper airway performed at various sleep stages. This, coupled with a synchronizing polysomnogram, also known as a sleep study, allows physicians to observe the stage of sleep a patient is in as well identify episodes of air flow obstruction, which was not previously possible.

The patient said, “After feeling a bit helpless from not seeing results from the various treatment options, it was a huge relief that after a few short and painless hours, Healthpoint’s multidisciplinary team were able to pinpoint exactly what the issue was and the different treatments options available to me, all in the same day. I literally walked away with a customized and alternative treatment option. From this approach, I am now able to consider different options that we know will work, from oral appliances to a specific type of surgery to treat my OSA. After years of struggling with this condition, I am looking forward to that first night of rested sleep soon.”

Dr. Favas Thaivalappil, Pulmonology and Sleep Medicine Consultant and Head of Sleep Center, Healthpoint said: “We often see a lot of patients affected by sleep-related breathing disorders complaining about a lack of sleep, many of which have underlying conditions that can cause high blood pressure or cardiac issues. We can usually determine the root cause of the issue and treat the conditions effectively. However, in patients who are unable to comply with traditional sleep therapy options, a personalized approach is essential to identify their underlying cause and to plan the treatment accordingly,”

“For this patient, this procedure helped us identify the site of the obstruction in more detail, allowing us to offer customized alternative treatment options of sleep apnea including reconsideration of an oral appliance or surgery. The DISE-PSG procedure is a very useful investigation method for selected patients who have had a bad night’s sleep for far too long. Through Healthpoint, we are now able to bring this new procedure to the region to help detect and diagnose complicated respiratory illnesses and provide modern treatment options to them, and probably of the benefit to their wider family too,” continued Dr. Favas.

Healthpoint specializes in sleep-related disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), excessive day time sleepiness, disorders related to the circadian rhythm and parasomnia. With a dedicated team of multidisciplinary experts, including sleep physicians, surgeons, dentists, psychologists and qualified sleep therapists, Healthpoint’s Sleep Medicine Center is designed to diagnose and help to treat patients suffering from sleep and respiratory illnesses using precision-based technology.

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A UN-led global initiative to tackle breast cancer could save 2.5 million lives by 2040, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, just ahead of World Cancer Day.

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Fake medicines kill almost 500,000 sub-Saharan Africans a year: UNODC report

Trafficked medical products kill almost half a million sub-Saharan Africans every year, and action is needed to stem the flow, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states in its new threat assessment report.

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