Pandemics, pathogens and the environment: understanding threats to our health

September 18, 2019

A sell-out crowd packed the Clarendon Auditorium at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre for Pandemics, pathogens and the environment: understanding threats to our health, a special panel event organised by the Doherty Institute in partnership with the Convergence Science Network.

The event was held to help celebrate the Doherty Institute’s 5th anniversary.

A panel of eminent physicians and researchers was expertly moderated by ABC Breakfast co-presenter Michael Rowland focusing on the 10 global health challenges the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in early 2019.

Doherty Institute Director and world-leading HIV researcher, Professor Sharon Lewin opened the discussions about the progress made in the HIV response, both in Australia and globally.

“Two big scientific challenges remain for HIV, a vaccine and a cure. Treatment needs to be lifelong, as soon as people stop medication, the virus jumps back up,” Professor Lewin said.

“The fact HIV is still on the top ten threats for WHO is interesting to me, because we’ve made so many advances, but unless we find a cure of a vaccine, we are always going to worry about HIV coming back.”

Professor Lewin also addressed the current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“While the world was unprepared for the scale of the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 – the WHO and many other organisations have come together to invest more significantly,” she said.

“There are a number of products that can be tested in the fields and two new treatments and a vaccine look effective and will potentially be rolled out more broadly.”

Deputy Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute, Professor Ian Barr gave a brief overview of the 2019 influenza season in Australia.

Later, he demonstrated what was needed in the case of a large-scale influenza outbreak with a tongue-in-cheek showbag of goodies including masks, antivirals, antibiotics, a ‘How-to’ survive a pandemic book, and a rapid test.

“It’s the complete pandemic kit, but there is one thing missing – a vaccine. And I’ve got bad news, there won’t be one available until six to eight months after the pandemic begins,” he said.

Nobel Prize winner and Doherty Institute Patron, Laureate Professor Peter Doherty offered his insight into the impact of climate change.

“In the context of our Institute, climate change has implications on infectious disease, we worry about the move of mosquito borne infections away from the equator, and into the mountainous regions, there is already evidence of that movement,” he said.

“We have massive flooding which can cause over flowing sewerage – but the worst impacts of climate change aren’t through infectious diseases as much as food production.

“It’s an extraordinarily difficult problem for the Australian government because we are so dependent on fossil fuel exports, we can’t get out of that business quickly. We have to rethink, because these products will become unacceptable on the world scene.”

Deputy Director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory at the Doherty Institute Associate Professor Deborah Williamson talked about the growing challenge of antimicrobial resistance in relation to drug-resistant gonorrhoea.

“It’s complex epidemiology, complex behavioural factors and we are seeing a huge increase in Australia and across the world. Not just gonorrhea, but other sexually transmitted infections as well,” Associate Professor Williamson said.

“Gonorrhoea specifically can develop resistance very quickly, coupled with a high incidence is a perfect storm.”

One Health is a concept that recognises that the health of humans, animals and the environment are all unified and interconnected, University of Melbourne Professor Anna Meredith, the Head of Melbourne Veterinary School said if we are going to effectively tackle infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance we need to embrace One Health.

“Surveillance of animal health is just as important as human health as we are so intimately connected,” Professor Meredith said.

Doherty Institute epidemiologist and infectious diseases physician Dr Katherine Gibney made the important distinction between vaccine hesitance and anti-vaccination advocates.

“We need to bring in the social sciences to work out what we need to do to make sure everyone understands how important vaccines are,” she said.

Professor Lewin was also asked about the responsibility Australia has in global health – is there more the government could do?

“Priorities for high-income countries is to help low-to-middle income countries strengthen their health care systems, and that has to be done in partnership,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to work with these countries to develop new drugs and vaccines, it’s a shared problem.

“Our government in recent years has focused on Australia, rather than thinking about our neighbouring countries, that’s a worrying shift for me.”

Watch below as the Federal Health Minister, the Hon. Greg Hunt, and Dr Robert Gallo, Director and Co-founder, Institute of Human Virology, and Co-founder and Scientific Director of the Global Virus Network, wish the Doherty Institute a happy birthday.