Ancient disease threat right on our doorstep


LEPROSY is endemic in Papua New Guinea and Australia needs to strengthen the fight against the ancient disease to better protect North Queenslanders from infection, doctors says.

Authors of a research letter published in the Medical Journal of Australia today have raised concerns about the potential for the almost forgotten disease to re-emerge in Australia as a result of regular cross border contacts between PNG and Australians.

"Since 1985 Torres Strait Islander Australians and PNG Nationals have been able to move freely across the border to pursue traditional activities in the Torres Strait Protected Zone,'' the team wrote in their research letter.

"This arrangement acknowledges the importance of their shared cultural history but the potential public health implications are also clear.''

The researchers says 388 new leprosy cases were notified in PNG in 2015 and the annual number of cases has changed little over the past decade.

The team, led by Dr Alison Hempenstall, a registrar based at the Thursday Island Hospital, reviewed all laboratory-confirmed cases diagnosed in Far North Queensland between 1989 and 2018, aiming to determine if the transmission of leprosy in PNG had any impact on Australians.

The Queensland Health Notifiable Conditions Register recorded 20 cases of leprosy during the three decade study period.

Eleven of those cases were born in Australia and included seven Torres Strait Islanders.

A 28-year-old Torres Strait Islander woman who had contact with a PNG-born person with leprosy and was diagnosed with the infection in 2009 was the most recent Australian born cases.

But the research letter says while there has been no locally acquired leprosy cases since 2009, two PNG-born Torres Strait Islanders have been diagnosed with the infection in the past decade.

"The continuous flow of people between Australia and PNG makes ongoing vigilance essential,'' the letter says.

Australia will provide over $600 million in development assistance to PNG during 2019-20 with some of those funds going to the public health system and programs designed to protect against the spread of leprosy.

"However, more could be done,'' Dr Hempenstall and her colleagues said.

"Public health programs have dramatically reduced the burden of infectious diseases in Australia.

"Greater support for similar programs in PNG will not only help our nearest neighbours but will also reduce the risk of reappearance of infectious diseases like leprosy that have been almost forgotten by Australians.''