Is Australia ready for the next infectious disease emergency?

April 17, 2017

Infectious diseases and public health experts say Australia is well placed to respond to an infectious diseases emergency but cannot be complacent and many logistical challenges remain.

In a commentary article published today in the Medical Journal of Australia co-author, Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital, said infectious diseases and pandemics are massive global challenges that will not go away.

The authors said Australia has learnt from global responses to devastating outbreaks such as Zika and Ebola viruses and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The flu pandemic in 2009 tested the Australian response system and highlighted the need for more research and that our response will require better coordination and some improvement.

A new virtual centre, the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Planning on Infectious Diseases Emergencies (APPRISE) funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), was launched last year, specifically to develop Australia’s research response.

Professor Lewin, who is also the Chief Investigator of APPRISE, said “the new national network will focus on multidisciplinary research which will extend from the needs of communities, hospitals and intensive care units, to the ethics of decisions necessary during outbreaks.”

“We will always be challenged to improve because a characteristic of pandemic responses is what works today might not work in five years’ time,” she said.

Co-author Professor Tania Sorrell, Director of Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, said collaboration and complementarity among four infectious diseases Centres of Research Excellence funded by the Australian Government will also improve Australia’s response.

She said these collaborations will provide platforms to answer vitally important questions such as who will be at greater risk of future emerging infections.

“During the 2009 flu pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and pregnant women were at higher risk of infections severe enough to require intensive care,” she said.

“Australia needs the ability to rapidly develop diagnostic tests for new infections, as well as pre-approved protocols so we can rapidly conduct clinical trials for diagnostic tests and drugs.”

Central to Australia’s future preparedness will be international coordination and information exchange with global partners with similar initiatives such as PREPARE in Europe.

The authors said the ability to model infectious pandemics and the training of the research workforce to deal with infectious disease emergencies are other priorities.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy and the Office of Health Protection’s Principal Medical Adviser, Dr Jenny Firman, also co-authored the paper.

“The Australian Government recognises that emerging infectious diseases present ongoing public health risks in Australia and internationally,” Professor Murphy said, “and we work collaboratively with our state and territory partners, infectious disease experts and the broader health sector to ensure that Australia has coordinated national response arrangements to detect, assess and respond to emerging infectious diseases.

“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee leads our national preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks. It collaborates closely with researchers such as the APPRISE group to ensure that not only are we ready to respond to outbreaks but have researchers prepared, networked nationally and internationally, to conduct research in infectious disease emergencies to inform our response.”

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