An influx of southerners moving into Northern Australia has Queensland scientists concerned that this new population won’t respond well to one local – the mosquito.
The Australian Government has recently been promoting the development of Northern Australia, which is attracting an increase in population, but according to CQUniversity’s mosquito-transmitted diseases expert Professor Andrew Taylor-Robinson, the pending northern boom may have a few public health hiccups. He believes the new northern residents could be susceptible to a long list of mosquito-borne diseases they may never have encountered before.
Professor Taylor-Robinson, an immunologist and expert in Australian arboviruses (viruses carried by arthropods, primarily mosquitoes), says, “There are more than 75 arboviruses that have been identified in Australia, with many causing debilitating diseases such as Ross River, Barmah Forest and Murray Valley encephalitis viruses.
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“While these three can now be tested routinely in pathology laboratories, for most of the other arboviruses that people contract, there are no commercially available tests to diagnose the infections.
“Patients may present with a fever, muscle and joint ache, and generally feel unwell; however, the cause is not obvious and very often goes undiagnosed. Treatment is therefore frequently managed poorly.
“These neglected arboviruses that are indigenous to Australia might have been infecting humans at a regular rate for decades, but we still know little about them.”
Further investigation needed into mozzie viruses
Professor Taylor-Robinson says that investment into a rigorous identification and screening program is warranted and could potentially reduce significant outbreaks of these viruses at a time when a population boom is imminent.
“People relocating to the tropical north are likely to have had no previous exposure to these viruses and are thus relatively susceptible to infection compared to locals who live side by side with these potential pathogens.”
Postgraduate researcher Narayan Gyawali, under the supervision of Professor Taylor-Robinson, presented these research findings late last year at the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conference in Baltimore, highlighting the need for further resources to be injected into better understanding the public health threats facing Northern Australia.
Recently awarded his PhD, Dr Gyawali says the Northern Australia expansion is set to bring together infection-naïve people, native reservoir wildlife and vector mosquitoes. “It’s potentially a perfect storm for the increased prevalence of infection”.
The escalating rate and effects of climate change that is being observed in the tropical north of Australia is also likely to lead to elevated numbers of arbovirus-transmitting mosquitoes.
Monitoring, control and testing needed
Professor Taylor Robinson says Australia should be giving more attention to mosquito monitoring and control and further resources to improve tests for viruses in humans.
He believes there is a real gap in knowledge about arboviruses in Northern Australia which presents a real public health problem that needs urgent attention.
“We know from our previous studies that residents of Central and Northern Queensland are generally much more aware of what personal preventive measures to take to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and to limit their breeding than are people living in areas where mozzies don’t currently pose a threat of infection.
“In light of the projected future redispersal of the Australian population, there is a pressing need for public health campaigns to heighten awareness of what precautions can be taken by individuals.”