James Cook University’s Professor Ian Wronski said that Australia has to wake up to the fact that these diseases could easily move across the Torres Strait Islands and on to the Australian mainland.
Professor Wronski, who is the Pro Vice Chancellor of JCU’s Faculty of Medicine, Health and Molecular Sciences, said this latest outbreak was yet more proof that Australia urgently needed an Institute for Tropical Health and Medicine.
The cholera outbreak in Daru has already resulted in 13 deaths – all children – and another 64 hospitalisations. A total of 260 people have been treated during the past three weeks.
Dr Amos Lano, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Daru General Hospital, raised fears that the disease was likely to spread along coastal villages from Daru, even to the Torres Strait islands of Australia, because of the continuous movement of people from the affected areas along the Fly River.
JCU biosecurity expert Professor Rick Speare said hundreds more were likely to be affected and a “high mortality rate is expected”.
“A breakdown in the health system and lack of basic public health underlies the current cholera outbreak,” he said.
JCU public health specialist, Professor Peter Leggat, said there needed to be a co-ordinated response to these ongoing crises in terms of public health education and research.
“There is an urgent need for support for Queensland researchers who are on the front line in combating this increased biosecurity threat to Australia,” he said.
“In addition to cholera, there are many other potentially deadly tropical diseases found in the region, such as dengue fever, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, rabies, avian influenza (H5N1), bat-borne viruses and newly emerging pathogens.
“We need to find these problems early, develop response capacity and prevent outbreaks from occurring in the first place. We certainly need to make sure that these significant disease problems don’t spill over into Australia,” Professor Leggat said.
Professor Wronski said an Institute for Tropical Health and Medicine needed to be located in tropical Queensland on the doorstep of tropical diseases as they emerge from developing countries.
“Northern Queensland is one of the few tropical locations in the world with a sophisticated scientific infrastructure, stable government, a first-world economy and access to tropical environments,” he said.
The distance across the Torres Strait from Cape York to PNG is approximately 150 km at the narrowest point, and Boigu and Saibai islands, the most northerly inhabited islands of Australia, are only six km from the PNG coast.
“With 274 islands making up the Torres Strait Island group, there is ample opportunity for diseases to island hop via this corridor to northern Australia,” Professor Wronski said.
“Our nearest neighbours are host to a broad range of infectious diseases of both humans and animals.”
Professor Wronski said that it was acknowledged globally that it is easier to deal with emerging infectious diseases before they are well established, before they become a public health emergency, and before they can have damaging economic impacts.
“This most recent risk underlines that the major health security risk to Australia is the invasion of infectious diseases,” he said. “Early detection and response are essential and so is the research to provide this through an Australian Institute of for Tropical Health and Medicine.”
Professor Leggat is Head of JCU’s School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences.
Professor Rick Speare is Director of JCU’s Anton Breinl Centre for Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Together, they head JCU’s highly successful postgraduate programs in public health.
Contacts: Professor Ian Wronski 07 4781 5330 or 0437 020 358
Professor Leggat or Professor Speare on 07 47815959 or 0419 990 229
JCU Media Liaison: Jim O’Brien 07 4781 4822 or 0418 892449
Issued: November 11, 2010
JCU Media Liaison, Jim O’Brien 07 4781 4822 or 0418 892449