HC Deb 24 May 1994 vol 244 cc171-2
6. Mr. French

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what is her policy in respect of additions to and subtractions from the list of notifiable diseases.

Mr. Sackville

The notification system is one of the methods by which health authorities are alerted to the need to prevent further cases of a communicable disease. It also assists in the planning and valuation of long-term preventive strategies, such as immunisation campaigns.

Mr. French

Is my hon. Friend aware that the streptococcal infection known as necrotising fasciitis—a galloping gangrene-type disease, which can eat human flesh at the rate of an inch an hour—is not on the list of notifiable diseases? Does not he feel that the definition of "notifiable" ought to be revised to include conditions that are rampant and lethal and in respect of which early diagnosis and recognition of the symptoms may make the difference between life and death?

Mr. Sackville

I can assure my hon. Friend that if notification in any way contributed to the treatment of the individual patient or to the prevention of the infection spreading to other patients, I would certainly recommend it. I am aware that a number of severe streptococcal infections become necrotising fasciitis. It is extremely rare that there is a cluster of such cases such as that in his area, which is being investigated urgently by the Public Health Laboratory Service. I am advised by leading public health experts that, except for the Gloucestershire cluster, the pattern and number of those cases is not out of line with what is normally expected. However, I assure the House that we will continue to do everything possible to find the source of those infections and ensure that there are not further incidents.

Mr. Blunkett

I do not think that the House or the country will be at all satisfied with that reply from the Under-Secretary. Is not the cluster in Gloucestershire completely out of line with previous experience? Will the Under-Secretary tell the House not only what the PHLS is doing but what steps he and the Secretary of State intend to take to allay understandable fears by indicating how the infection is being tracked and what preventive measures are being taken across the country to ensure that this extremely worrying development is laid to rest?

Mr. Sackville

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the literature on the subject reports that there has been only one other case of a cluster of such infections, which was in Norway. We are leaving no stone unturned in trying to locate the reason for the cluster and find the connection between the cases, some of which, tragically, have been fatal. The Public Health Laboratory Service is investigating and is giving every assistance to the local national health service staff in Gloucestershire. That process will continue until we have some answers.

Mr. Knapman

My hon. Friend will be aware of the real concern and anxiety that exist in Gloucestershire, especially in my constituency. My hon. Friends and I met the chairman and the chief executive of the local national health service trust recently and they are doing all that they can. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Department of Health will do its very best to try to find a cure to this awful disease at the earliest possible date?

Mr. Sackville

It appears that, when the infection reaches the stage of necrosis, the only answer is surgery. We will ensure that those cases, if they continue to appear, are treated with all dispatch.