Five medical conditions Australia can’t shake

On the 31 October 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement declaring that rubella (aka German Measles) had been eliminated from Australia, as well as Macau and Brunei Darussalam.

That’s welcome news, but the term eliminated can be misleading. It’s just a moment in time and in a globalised world, Australia can’t afford to rest on its laurels, but must continue to vaccinate and test for such conditions, suggests microbiologist Dr Petra Derrington:

‘There are a lot of diseases that Australians might assume have been dealt with and eliminated, but that’s not so.

‘It might surprise people to know how many conditions that we think of as in the past are very much with us today, and if not detected and treated, pose serious health risks.’

Five of the ‘old’ disease states that are still with us are:

Whooping cough

For anyone who has seen someone suffering from whooping cough, particularly a child, it is a disturbing scene. The early symptoms are similar to that of a cold, but it soon progresses to a relentless fit of coughing, followed by a whooping sound as the patient attempts to draw breath. Apnoea, where breathing stops for periods of time and the patient goes blue, is another symptom.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It can last three months and also lead to complications like pneumonia, fits, brain inflammation, haemorrhaging and death. Detecting it as early as possible through testing in order to begin treatment and stop its spread is important, as of course is vaccination.

Syphilis

On the rise in Australia along with other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) syphilis is caused by the spread of the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Many infected with syphilis may not be aware of the symptoms – which include sores on the genitals, mouth or anus and which usually self-heal.

If left untreated, syphilis can have serious health ramifications, which include joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and neurological damage to the brain and other organs of the body depending on the stage of the condition. It is of particular concern to pregnant women.

Tuberculosis

Caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Tuberculosis is a contagious air-borne disease with symptoms including fever, chest pains, and the coughing up of blood. Those at high-risk include young children, or those with conditions that weaken the immune system, such as diabetes, cancers and HIV or AIDS.

Dengue Fever

Most commonly found in tropical locations, dengue fever is a viral infection passed on by dengue mosquitoes. It’s most common in areas of northern Queensland and can be passed on when the virus is brought in by travellers.

Symptoms include muscle and joint pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, intense headache and may last up to a week. When a dengue outbreak has been reported, everyone who has symptoms and has passed through an effected area should be tested. There are four version of dengue so a blood test is required to determine the correct treatment path.

Measles

Not to be confused with the recently eradicated German Measles (aka Rubella), measles is an air-borne and potentially fatal condition that can lead to complications like pneumonia and encephalitis. While the condition is relatively rare in Australia, it’s worth reminding ourselves that on the world stage, measles is the firth highest cause of illness and death in children.

The early symptoms include fever, coughing and a runny nose. As with whooping cough, vaccination is the best insurance against measles, but a pathology test will reveal if someone has contracted the condition and the process of recovery can begin.

 

While these disease states have to a large degree been brought under control, thanks to Australia’s vaccination programs, they remain an ever-present danger. And while they are, pathology is critical to detecting and monitoring these conditions to ensure “herd protection”.

‘Vaccination is key, absolutely crucial to making sure we get on top, and stay on top, of these diseases which can have awful consequences.

‘But of course we know that not everyone gets vaccinated and that borders are porous: Australians travel in and out of the country all the time,’ says Dr Derrington.

‘Pathology testing therefore is absolutely critical for keeping a pulse on disease states and monitoring the health of the nation.’