An interview with Dr Norman Fry

January 2020

In this interview, Dr Norman Fry tells us about his role as a Clinical Scientist for Public Health England's National Infection Service and the battle with preventing the spread of Bordetella pertussis. Dr Fry also shares how his career developed over the years and why it is important to be involved with the Society.

Tell us more about your current role.

I am a Clinical Scientist in the Immunisation and Countermeasures Division at Public Health England’s National Infection Service, and Head of the Vaccine Preventable Bacteria Section. My section hosts the National Reference Laboratories for Bordetella pertussis, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae and diphtheria.

Why are these pathogens so dangerous?

Bordetella pertussis causes pertussis (whooping cough), a severe/potentially life-threatening disease in young unimmunised infants. Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae cause a range of diseases and our work focuses on those strains responsible for invasive infections (usually isolated from blood or cerebrospinal fluid).  Diphtheria is a potentially fatal respiratory infection in humans caused by toxin-producing strains of Corynebacterium diphtheriae, C. ulcerans, or rarely C. pseudotuberculosis. Toxigenic strains can also infect the skin (cutaneous diphtheria) in humans and can be carried and transmitted by animals including dogs and cats.

What role does your laboratory have in this research?

We provide specialist laboratory testing to detect, confirm and characterise these pathogens/infections using a range of methods (culture, polymerase chain reaction, whole genome sequencing and specific antibody/antigen testing).

How are you striving to monitor the effectiveness of vaccination in the hope that it can control disease?

We work closely with our colleagues in Public Health England and the National Health Service (including scientists, epidemiologists and consultant medical microbiologists) to define outbreaks, describe the epidemiology of circulating strains and identify transmission pathways. We also collaborate with academia and other public health organisations, nationally and internationally, and are actively involved with several European laboratory and epidemiology networks. To monitor the effectiveness of vaccination nationally, it is essential to have both high-quality laboratory and epidemiological data.  These data are also used to inform any potential changes to vaccine policy, following the approval and recommendation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent Departmental Expert Committee and statutory body which advises UK health departments on immunisation.

Tell us more about one of your proudest achievements?

The work of my team contributed to the characterisation of the national pertussis outbreak in 2012, and to inform the response, a highly successful maternal pertussis immunisation programme was established in October of that year (initially as an emergency measure). This programme was extended in 2013, and following a recent review by the JCVI, it was recommended to continue as a routine programme.

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