Dobson launches health `crusade'

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NEW TARGETS for creating a healthier Britain could save 300,000 lives over the next 10 years but people needed to start taking responsibility for their own health, Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, said yesterday.

The Government announced plans to cut heart disease, cancer, mental illness and accidents, the biggest causes of death in England, accounting for 75 per cent of deaths under the age of 75.

Launching the White Paper Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation, Mr Dobson said the measures were the "biggest crusade for health care ever.

"These are ambitious targets, which should mean we become a healthier nation." The targets, to be achieved by 2010, are to reduce the death- rate of people under 75; from cancer by a fifth, saving 100,000 lives; from heart disease by two-fifths, saving 200,000 lives, from accidents by at least a fifth, saving 12,000 lives and from suicide by at least a fifth, saving 4,000 lives.

The Government also stressed its commitment to tackling the health gap between rich and poor but did not set specific targets for different classes. Mr Dobson said the Government, communities and families and individuals needed to work together to improve health. "We reject the idea that individuals are powerless victims of their fate. But we also reject the Tory idea that individuals are entirely to blame for their own poor health." To help people give up smoking, nicotine replacement therapy would be free for poor smokers who wanted to stop.

Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, said: "With any initiative to improve health, the gap between the rich and the poor increases, because wealthier people are more likely to listen and stop smoking and start eating better. The new targets are not a turning- point for health but a welcome consolidation of what is already going on."

Government plans include a national programme to provide defibrillators in public places such as railway stations, and training members of the public to use them to revive heart-attack victims. It has given pounds 2m to fund 400 defibrillators in the community.

New public-health observatories in each NHS region will be set up to monitor health trends and establish "disease registers". Every health authority will have to draw up an improvement programme tailored to its area, Mr Dobson said. There would also be a new, independent, expert review of the safety and benefits of water fluoridation. If it was shown to be beneficial, councils would be given powers to force water companies to put fluoride in water.

All schoolchildren will have had the opportunity, by the time they are 16, as a badge of citizenship, to learn first aid and resuscitation techniques. Even 11-year-olds will be offered survival skills and first-aid training, Mr Dobson added.

However, teachers were unhappy about their future role in improving the nation's health and said the main job for schools was to raise educational standards by providing a broad and balanced national curriculum. "Nobody could argue against the need to reduce child accidents or improve the health-education programmes but it is unreasonable to expect schools to undertake additional accident- prevention lessons or totally new health- education work, which many are simply unable to deliver," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"Attempts to require schools to timetable additional government demands, when the teaching week is already under enormous pressure, could well prove counter-productive."

Mental-health charities said that new money would be needed to meet the targets.

"One in ten people with severe mental illness meet an unnatural death," said Cliff Prior, chief executive of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship.

"What is needed to prevent these tragedies is quality care provided early. That means a lifting of the financial restrictions that exist on the best drug treatments."