Is Australia ready for an infectious disease emergency?

flu virus

Australia cannot be complacent about a potential infectious disease emergency, say public health experts

While Australia is well placed to respond to such an emergency, many logistical challenges remain, say specialists in a commentary article published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

And co-author Professor Sharon Lewin from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity argues that infectious diseases and pandemics are massive global challenges that will not go away.

Australia has learned lessons from global responses to devastating outbreaks such as Zika and Ebola viruses, and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the authors write.

The flu pandemic in 2009 tested the Australian response system and highlighted the need for more research and better coordination.

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.

“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,” says Professor Lewin, who is also the chief investigator of APPRISE.

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

Her co-author, Professor Tania Sorrell from the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, says more collaboration will also improve Australia’s response.

These collaborations will provide platforms to answer vitally important questions such as who will be at greater risk of future emerging infections, she says.

“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 says.

“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 add that 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 says.

“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.”

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