Epidemics in a changing world

At the twentieth meeting of the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) held on June 5 2009, an Expert Working Group presented a report titled Epidemics in a Changing World. This report considered the factors that prompt the emergence of infectious diseases, and that alter the frequency, location and spread of disease in a changing global environment. It was noted that humans are the key contributor to this change, through population growth, climate change and associated environmental impacts.

The report also identified that the infectious agents that cause such diseases constantly evolve. This makes the prediction of future threats very difficult — so we must expect to be surprised. The report identified several key ways for Australia to strengthen its capabilities to prevent and manage epidemics.

The Expert Working Group members came from a wide range of scientific disciplines and organisations. Many of the members had been previously or were currently actively engaged in operations or research associated with animal or human epidemics in Australia and overseas. They drew heavily on their extensive scientific knowledge and expertise in considering the topic, in fields including virology, entomology, epidemiology, medical science and veterinary science.

The recommendations

Science and innovation will provide the key to safeguarding Australia’s future. The report focused on ensuring that Australia is well placed to deal with the effect of global changes on the occurrence and spread of human and animal epidemic diseases.

The Expert Working Group noted that Australia’s current operational response to disease control is effective — and has been in recent times for disease events which have not resulted in major global epidemics. The recommendations presented were seen as providing Australia with the preparedness and agility to cope with the unknown challenges of a future world that may provide a substantively different environment for epidemic disease.

In order to underpin Australia’s preparedness to deal with emerging epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

1. Australia possesses the human capacity to combat potential epidemics

The nation must be prepared and sufficiently agile to deal with unexpected epidemics. This requires that we develop, maintain and retain skilled people through:

  • conducting ongoing national workforce planning for expertise in human and animal epidemic diseases; and
  • boosting higher education and research training in areas of need.

In order to provide early warning of the emergence of epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

2. Australia possesses a long term biosecurity information collection, analysis and interpretation capability

Capability must be developed and maintained to collect, analyse and interpret disease surveillance information. This must be secured by:

  • creating an ongoing, effective national human and animal disease information system; and
  • integrating this system with similar systems operating overseas.

In order to enhance Australia’s wider ability to deal with emerging epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

3. Australia develops forward regional engagement to mitigate potential epidemic.

Australia needs to commit human and other resources to engage our region on disease surveillance, preparedness and mitigation, through capacity building and collaboration. This requires that we develop political, scientific and technical relationships with our neighbours, at multiple levels, to reduce human and animal disease risk to Australia and the region by:

  • establishing an active ongoing cross portfolio mechanism involving PM&C, DFAT, DoHA, DAFF, DIISR, DEEWR and other relevant agencies dedicated to managing and supporting effective regional engagement; and
  • assisting regional countries to meet their obligations under the WHO International Health Regulations and the World Organisation for Animal Health requirements through:
    • supporting development of collaborative regional surveillance and early warning systems; and
    • developing regional expertise through professional training and higher education in Australia and in the region.

In order to secure the front-line defences needed to deal with emerging epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

4. Australia has a self-sufficient vaccine development and production capacity

Australia needs to retain and enhance its onshore development and production capacity for vaccines. This is essential for domestic preparedness and, as importantly, to enable access to the latest overseas expertise and technology in this field. The focus should be on the onshore development and production capacity for:

  • contemporary influenza vaccines; and
  • niche vaccines, particularly in the context of future Australian needs.

In order to better coordinate our ability to deal with emerging epidemic diseases the Group recommended that:

5. The Government establishes the cross-portfolio arrangements essential for effective implementation of Recommendations 1, 2 and 3 as a matter of immediate priority.

Please visit the PMSEIC website to view the full report.