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Health professionals must recognise emerging challenges affecting their public health role

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Viral and bacterial infections have historically been one of the major causes of illness and death.

Significant public health interventions to prevent infection date back more than a century. Arguably two of the greatest advances in improving the health of the population was identifying the need for clean water in the 19th century, and the recognition of hand hygiene’s importance.

However, infections still pose an enormous challenge to public health, and two areas of concern addressed this week are particularly significant to nurses.

”It can be difficult to counter misinformation”

The introduction of national vaccination programmes in the 20th century was hugely significant in reducing incidence of what were previously common childhood diseases, while significantly reducing complications and deaths. However, uptake of some routine vaccinations is below target.

As Nursing Times reported this week, the Royal Society for Public Health has published a report looking at the role of health professionals, including nurses, in promoting vaccinations, as well as examining attitudes to them.

Although nurses and doctors were noted as being among the most trusted for providing information to patients, the report highlighted that myths and misinformation spread by ‘antivaxers’ via social media had played a part in misunderstandings about vaccinations among the public.

While nurses certainly have a vital role in educating families about the evidence, it can be difficult to counter misinformation they’ve read online. The report reminds us that changes in the way people access information and communicate present new challenges for health professionals.

In addition, the way infections are treated is a significant cause of global concern. As Nursing Times also reported on this week, the government has published a new five-year action plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance. It has urged health professionals to step up the fight against drug-resistant ‘superbugs’, with an aim of controlling AMR by 2040.

Raising public awareness of AMR by health professionals is certainly a key component to getting the message out to the public.

”The skills of nurses and other health professionals must be harnessed”

Patients are of course familiar with being presented with information about how and when to use antibiotic medicines, but problems with their overuse unfortunately persist, as those working in primary care will be all too familiar with.

It is well-known that GPs are often put under pressure by patients to prescribe antibiotics in situations where their use is inappropriate and the best treatment is paracetamol, fluids and rest. And as primary care is increasingly relying on nurse prescribers, many nurses also find themselves in this situation.

The focus of these reports on preventing infectious diseases and on AMR is obviously welcome. The skills of nurses and other health professionals must be harnessed to provide education to the public about the benefits of vaccination and immunisation and the risks of inappropriate use of antibiotics.

But just as health professionals are aware of advancements in treatments and clinical practice, they must be aware of the changing nature of challenges to educating their patients.

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