COLLABORATION

Scientists team up to protect Australia from rising threat of infectious diseases

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The CSIRO & James Cook University scientists will be working on increased surveillance of wildlife, improved diseases monitoring and more extensive field-based sampling.

Australia’s scientific community is coming together to strengthen the country’s preparedness and response to infectious diseases, a growing threat around the world due to increased mobility, urbanisation and growing global trade, among other reasons.

With urbanisation, population growth and development come human encroachment into wildlife habitats, in addition to expanding agricultural development from the rise of peri-urban farming to greater land use. These activities are among the many factors that lead to the growing emergence and spread of infectious diseases in humans, of which 75 percent originate in animals.

Australia is also particularly susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases that are endemic to Southeast Asia, research says, as its proximity to the region potentially turns its northern areas into a gateway to the rest of the country.

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To stem the spread of such diseases, the country’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) said its scientific experts will be working in collaboration with their peers in James Cook University (JCU) on increased surveillance of wildlife, improved diseases monitoring and more extensive field-based sampling.

The programme will connect JCU’s College of Public Health, Medicinal and Veterinary Sciences in Townsville with two CSIRO facilities: the Australian Tropical Sciences and Innovation Precinct (ATSIP) in Townsville and the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong.

JCU and CSIRO will share knowledge and training opportunities to create an agile team of experts who are able to respond rapidly to future infectious disease events.

“This collaboration will create an integrated northern and southern research capability that will be pivotal in helping to strengthen Australia’s preparedness and response to emerging infectious diseases,” Karen Andrews, Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, said in a media release on Friday.

Dean of the College, Professor Maxine Whittaker, said such work was necessary due to the alarming increase in the frequency of animal-to-human disease transmissions.

“The global annual incidence of zoonotic infectious disease outbreaks has increased by more than 300 percent since the 1980s,” Professor Whittaker said.

“This worrying trend is now seen as a global and national health security risk, with recent global outbreaks include Ebola virus disease, highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu), and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).”

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CSIRO Chair David Thodey AO welcomed the collaboration, saying the agency’s wide-ranging expertise, experience and geographical footprint would help beef up the team’s research capability for the benefit of the whole country.

“We’re well-known in the Townsville community for our partnerships to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef, but the challenge to help safeguard Australia from biosecurity threats is equally important,” he said. 

“We can’t solve this biosecurity challenge alone, that’s why collaboration with our long-standing partner, James Cook University, is crucial in strengthening and integrating Australia’s national biosecurity response capabilities.

“Our Townsville team aren’t just experts in biosecurity and environmental science, they’re Townsville’s front door to the whole of the national science agency, from energy to space, manufacturing to agriculture, and many others – whatever challenges Australians are facing, we’re here to help them solve.”