TB in Australians’ favourite holiday spots

photo: USAID

SUE DUNLEVY | NEWS CORP AUSTRALIA NETWORK | 29 OCTOBER 2015 

AUSTRALIA’S favourite holiday destinations are teeming with the deadly tuberculosis disease which is now becoming resistant to drug treatment.

Last year one million Indonesians caught the disease along with 130,000 in Vietnam and 120,000 in Thailand.

The newly released WHO Global Tuberculosis Report shows South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions account for 58 per cent of new cases globally.

And teachers and childcare workers who travel there for holidays are bringing the bug back to our shores.

The number of Australians newly diagnosed with the disease has more than doubled from 612 in 1991 to 1342 in 2014, Department of Health data shows.

TB killed 1.5 million people worldwide last year – more than AIDS, the WHO says.

Global health and poverty advocate Results International is calling on the Australian Government to step up its $220 million contribution to the fight against tuberculosis which is now rampaging in our region.

“Childcare workers and teachers are coming back from holidays and have caused concern among those facilities and they have had to have everyone tested,” Results International chief executive Maree Nutt said.

More than 100 children had to be tested for TB at a Sydney childcare centre earlier this year after someone at the centre contracted the airborne disease that infects the lungs, bones and sometimes the brain.

Ms Nutt says she doesn’t think Australians are aware the threat the disease poses in our region and wants our government to do more to stop it.

Australia needs to, at the very least, replenish its $200 million commitment to the global fund to fight the disease when new donations are required next year, Ms Nutt said.

She’s worried that with more than $1 billion cut from aid in recent budgets, this won’t happen.

The WHO claims to have met international goals for reducing TB with deaths falling by 47 per cent since 1990, saving an estimated 43 million lives since 2000.

However, Ms Nutt says with the incident rate falling by just 1.5 per cent a year it will take another 200 years to eradicate the disease.

There is no adult vaccination against the airborne disease and if you catch the drug resistant variety, treatment lasts for two years and in some cases chemotherapy is required.

The Department of Health says TB remains a serious challenge in our region, and Australia continues to support our neighbours to develop and fund flexible and responsive health systems better equipped to combat the disease.

PNG has the highest rate of TB infection in the Pacific, with an estimated 39,000 total cases and 25,000 new infections each year.

“The Australian Government (through DFAT) is investing $44.7 million over 2011-12 to 2016-17 to support improved TB control in PNG’s Western Province, particularly along the South Fly coast. This includes the provision of TB specialist staff, training for community health workers and volunteer treatment supporters,” a spokeswoman for the department said.

The Australian Government has also funded partnerships which bring new medicines, diagnostic tests and vaccines to market, with a particular focus on drug-resistant TB.

Worldwide, 9.6 million people are estimated to have fallen ill with tuberculosis in 2014.

Around 480,000 of these were cases of multidrug-resistant TB.

Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria and usually affects the lungs, but it is curable and preventable.

TB is spread in the same way as influenza when people with lung TB cough, sneeze or spit.

Those infected have a 10 per cent lifetime risk of falling ill with the disease with symptoms including cough with sputum and blood at times, chest pains, weakness, weight loss, fever and night sweats.

Treatment includes a six-month course of four antimicrobial drugs but the multi-resistant varieties require up to two years of treatment using chemotherapy.

“We recognise that the Australian Government has made commitments to fund TB eradication programs in our region but the scale of the problem revealed by the latest WHO report shows how much more work the international community needs to do to bring tuberculosis under control,” Ms Nutt said.