Experts warn Australia is surrounded by a ring of disease hot-spots

Australian biosecurity experts have warned that Australia is surrounded to its north by a 'ring of fire' where new human and animal plagues could appear with very little warning and with potentially dire consequences.

The warning comes from the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease (AB-CRC). AB-CRC chief executive officer Dr. Stephen Prowse says a study has revealed a number of global hot-spots where new and unknown diseases are most likely to erupt and one of the hottest is spread in an arc to Australia's north.

The scientists have developed an 'earthquake zone' type map for emerging diseases which shows which countries are most likely to be on the front line of an emerging pandemic.

Dr. Prowse says Australia is in the front line for outbreaks of diseases such as SARS, bird flu, Nipah virus, enterovirus 71 and Chikungunya, all of which infect both people and animals and are quite likely to emerge in the region.

The study of global disease hot-spots was carried out by Dr. Peter Daszak and colleagues of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine in New York, a partner of the AB-CRC and it highlights the vital importance of developing and maintaining effective disease surveillance in the region.

The scientists say often the only defence against a new disease is to spot it early, before it spreads and the map also offers the possibility of anticipating where new plagues might arise - Dr. Daszak says it is a way to predict the places from where the next HIV, SARS or avian influenza is likely to emerge.

Dr. Daszak says the risk map shows that Australia is surrounded to the north by a 'ring of fire' comprised of countries that are some of the hottest of the hot-spots which means forward thinking on the part of Australia in its approach to biosecurity risk.

Dr. Prowse says that is being done - the map shows the probability of new diseases emerging or of old diseases - such as rabies - of re-emerging and invites creativity in preventing them.

Dr. Prowse believes Australia can help to develop a regional "neighbourhood watch" involving farmers, teachers, other healthcare professionals and even ordinary citizens on the alert for unexplained sickness or deaths in animals or people, rather than relying on a handful of overworked professional doctors and vets spread across an enormous area to spot new plagues.

Dr. Prowse says new and emerging diseases rarely have any form of treatment and death rates can be quite high as in the case of the Nipah virus which kills about half of those who contract it and he says the best course of action is to 'stamp out the bushfire before it takes hold and spreads'.

Dr. Prowse says early detection and diagnosis are of paramount importance and the rapid diagnosis test developed by our partners was very important in helping to eradicate equine influenza (EI) in Australia following the recent outbreak.

The AB-CRC played a critical part in getting the test into the major veterinary laboratories in the country which ensured it was possible to quickly establish if the disease was present or not and take the proper steps to contain and eradicate it.

Dr. Prowse says the EI outbreak was a warning of what can happen when a major disease gets loose, whether among humans or livestock.

Experts say some old plagues are re-emerging with bluetongue spreading again in Europe possibly due to climate change, rabies has made a comeback in Bali, and foot-and-mouth disease remains a huge problem in many regions of South-East Asia.

Dr. Prowse says the Asian tiger mosquito, a carrier of several deadly diseases such as dengue fever and Chikungunya, is spreading worldwide due to trade and possibly climate change.

Recent cases of Hendra virus and Bungowannah virus indicates that Australia has unknown diseases of its own and koalas are being wiped out in record numbers by a new retrovirus.

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