New Paper Highlights Health Disparities in Australia and the Oceania Region

Review of Region’s Neglected Tropical Disease Control and Elimination Programs Highlight Successes and Areas for Expanded Efforts

WASHINGON, D.C.—January 31, 2013—Today, the open-access journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases published a comprehensive report highlighting the urgent need for expanded neglected tropical disease (NTD) control and elimination programs in Australia and the Pacific Islands region known as Oceania. The paper’s authors note that the greatest NTD burden falls on the most impoverished and marginalized people living in the region, particularly in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and among the Aboriginal population of Australia. By overcoming challenges in NTD control, the countries of Oceania can make impressive progress towards health equality.

Despite their proximity to one another in the South Pacific Ocean, the island nations of Oceania represent a diverse array of economies, from Australia and New Zealand to PNG, where more than one third of the population lives on less than USD $1.25 a day. Even within the wealthiest countries in the region, huge health disparities persist among indigenous populations.

“High NTD prevalence rates among impoverished and marginalized groups even in some of the world’s most prosperous nations prove that major health inequalities remain,” said co-author Dr. James McCarthy. “Safe, effective treatments are available for most NTDs. By reducing the burden of these diseases, regional leaders have an opportunity to have a significant impact on their most vulnerable people, helping them to lead healthier lives and contribute to growth and development in the region.”

NTDs disproportionally affect people in Oceania living in poverty, especially those living in extreme poverty on the populous islands of PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and among Aboriginal Australians. The paper states that a significant percentage of PNG’s population is infected with a range of parasites including vivax malaria, filariasis and hookworm, an intestinal parasite that contributes to anemia and malnutrition. Aboriginal Australians also suffer from high rates of strongyloidiasis, a serious worm infection, as well as hookworm infection, skin infections, including those caused by Group A streptococci, and trachoma.

However, progress has been made and there are demonstrated models for success. For example, the Pacific Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis (PacELF) was the first regional network in the world established for the elimination of lymphatic filariasis (LF), and through this mechanism, high levels of treatment coverage have been achieved in Fiji, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. The disease has been nearly eliminated in Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands by antiparasitic drug treatment in combination with control of mosquito populations that transmit the disease.

Despite the availability of these measures, the paper reports that as of 2010, of the 5.6 million people in PNG at risk for LF, only a small percentage received necessary treatment. There are opportunities to build on the PacELF model and scale up NTD control efforts across the region. In addition, because of the heavy burden of multiple NTDs in PNG, control programs can combine treatments, serving as an opportunity to study the feasibility of integrated mass drug administration (MDA) in the region.

“Cooperation between endemic countries and regional leaders, including Australia and Japan, in enacting PacELF has led to one of the greatest achievements in global NTD control,” said the paper’s senior author, Dr. Peter Hotez. “We need to build on past success and close the remaining gaps in coverage, especially in PNG. All countries with remaining cases of LF must step up post-treatment surveillance.” 

Co-author Dr. Alex Loukas stressed the need for NTD research and development in the region, explaining, “we need new and better drugs, diagnostics and vaccines.”

The Australian Government, through its aid agency AusAid and with partners such as the Fred Hollows Foundation, has played a leading role in the region, particularly in addressing trachoma.

“Just a few months ago, the PNG government, in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), announced that they are exploring areas to help strengthen the government’s efforts to control and eliminate NTDs in PNG,” added Dr. Hotez. “Partnerships such as this bode well for reaching the region’s most vulnerable populations.”

This paper was authored by Kevin Kline of Baylor College of Medicine and the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development; Professor James S. McCarthy of the Clinical Tropical Medicine Laboratory, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; Professor Alex Loukas of the School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine, and Rehabilitation Sciences, James Cook University; and Professor Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and the fellow in Disease and Poverty at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

To read the full paper, please visit PLOSntds.org.

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About NTDs

NTDs are a group of 17 parasitic and bacterial infections that are the most common afflictions of the world's poorest people. They blind, disable and disfigure their victims, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and disease. Research shows that treating NTDs lifts millions out of poverty by ensuring that children stay in school to learn and prosper; by strengthening worker productivity; and by improving maternal and child health.

About Sabin Vaccine Institute   
Sabin Vaccine Institute is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization of scientists, researchers, and advocates dedicated to reducing needless human suffering caused by vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases. Sabin works with governments, leading public and private organizations, and academic institutions to provide solutions for some of the world's most pervasive health challenges. Since its founding in 1993 in honor of the oral polio vaccine developer, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, the Institute has been at the forefront of efforts to control, treat and eliminate these diseases by developing new vaccines, advocating use of existing vaccines and promoting increased access to affordable medical treatments. For more information please visit www.sabin.org.

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