Variant fears | 

Ireland is already planning for the next pandemic, new chief medical officer says

Chief Medical Officer Breda Smyth also said Ireland has a “significant” obesity crisis.

Gráinne Ní AodhaIndependent.ie

Plans on how to respond to the next pandemic are being worked on as future health threats become increasingly difficult to predict, Ireland’s senior health official has said.

Chief Medical Officer Breda Smyth, who became CMO in October after Dr Tony Holohan stepped aside, said it was an “absolute privilege” to take on the role.

Professor Smyth has spent the last 15 years in Irish public health, including as a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a wide-ranging interview she said Ireland’s aging population, its “significant” obesity crisis and vulnerable communities are among the country’s biggest public health problems.

She said her priorities will include the prevention of chronic diseases, promoting a healthy lifestyle and reducing health inequality - as well as preparing for the next pandemic.

“Another priority that I will be focusing on is public health reform and ensuring that we have a robust pandemic preparedness in place for future threats and emerging threats,” Prof Smyth said.

“We’ve even seen in the last six months the increasing, emerging threats from monkeypox and then also ebola in Uganda. So we’re living in a very dynamic world with climate change and global warming that the unpredictability of emerging threats is increasing.

“With all of these external elements, they give rise to emerging health threats, which we also have to be prepared for.”

Prof Smyth said a concerted effort is needed in the weeks over and after Christmas to reduce transmission of Covid cases and hospital admissions.

She said despite “a constellation of sub-lineages of Omicron”, vaccines are still giving “very good protection” from the current sub-lineage against severe disease and hospitalisation.

“What would be a cause of concern is if we had something like Delta variant again, or a brand new type of variant, which we currently don’t have. But we are constantly on high alert,” she said.

A modelling unit is being developed with the health protection surveillance centre to monitor other illnesses and diseases in order to respond to other threats quickly, Prof Smyth said.

When asked about the 70,000 Ukrainian refugees in the country and if their health needs are being catered for, she said a liaison-officer system is in place.

She said during the height of the pandemic, when she was director of public health in the west, a social inclusion liaison officer, who spoke the language of the migrant community and was able to visit them to communicate public health messaging, was appointed.

“All the actual public health pandemic information was translated into their language, so be it Portuguese, Russian, Polish, whatever language was required,” she said.

“And then it was communicated to them then through their social inclusion liaison officer, who was from their community, and this helped greatly with the uptake and vaccination programmes with the control of outbreaks.”

She said this worked effectively among the Brazilian community, the Polish community and the eastern European communities.

“So this also actually is a model that is being deployed within the Ukrainian community. So liaison officers have been identified in the different areas and are working with the Ukrainian populations,” she added.

When asked about what the next pandemic could look like, Prof Smyth said: “We were expecting some sort of a threat but we never expected the pandemic to the scale that it actually arrived.

“One thing that has taught us is that we have to expect absolutely everything.

“With increased global warming and increased vector-borne diseases, it’s really important that we have robust pandemic preparedness plans in place and that is one of my priorities,” she said.


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