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Experts tackle parasite disease

Experts will gather in Fremantle this week to tackle a disease that affects people across a wide area of Australia – especially Indigenous peoples in the Kimberley, all of the NT and Queensland, and the northern part of NSW and SA.

March 19, 2012: - Experts will gather in Fremantle this week to tackle a disease that affects people across a wide area of Australia – especially Indigenous peoples in the Kimberley, all of the Northern Territory and Queensland, and the northern part of New South Wales and South Australia.

Information collected to date indicates that approximately one-third of people living in Aboriginal communities in this zone are affected.

The chronic infectious disease, strongyloidiasis, is caused by a tiny parasitic worm called Strongyloides stercoralis that lives in the wall of the small intestine, multiplies in the host and burrows through the tissues of the body.

“If the immune system fails, the infection can escalate and kill the person,” Professor Rick Speare from James Cook University said.

Professor Speare is chair of the organising committee of the 7th National Workshop on Strongyloidiasis, which will be held at Fremantle Hospital on Tuesday (March 20).

He said that non-indigenous people may also contract the disease particularly travellers who have visited places where strongyloidiasis is endemic in Australia and overseas, such as Armed Services personnel, ex-prisoners of war, and immigrants.

Strongyloidiasis has been found in Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) personnel.

The majority of deaths occur when a patient with Strongyloides is given corticosteroid drugs. Because the symptoms of this severe form of the disease mimic other diseases, the underlying problem is often not recognised, and the cause of death is registered as septicaemia, meningitis, pneumonia, or multiple organ failure.

“Although strongyloidiasis affects a large number of people, there are as yet no state-wide or national health strategies to control the disease,” Professor Speare said. “This is of particular concern because the disease is life-long, unless the infected person has had treatment that eradicated all of the worms from the body.”

The National Strongyloides Working Group is a special interest group of the Australasian College for Tropical Medicine and grew out of the work of Professor Speare, an expert in strongyloidiasis at James Cook University, when he became aware that there was no concerted effort to cure and control it.

“The aim of the Group is to raise awareness of the disease strongyloidiasis, to update our knowledge of the disease, and how to diagnose and treat it, stimulate and guide relevant research, and to advocate for diagnosis and treatment on behalf of affected people,” he said.

Research findings to be presented at the Workshop include management of patients in Italy, the results of studies involving testing and treating people in Indigenous communities, and an exciting new technique for diagnosing the disease.

During the conference a special presentation of a plaque will be made to Hollywood Hospital, a veteran’s hospital in Fremantle, in recognition of their support of landmark research on the parasitic disease.

“The work to develop a blood test for the disease was performed in the early 1980s on survivors of the Changi prisoner of war camp,” Professor Speare said.

“It was a major breakthrough in the diagnosis of the disease, and is still the most sensitive test available today.

“The test has enabled considerable progress in understanding the disease and the most effective treatment. The tests available prior to the blood test were, and are notoriously insensitive, so many patients were not able to get the correct diagnosis that would lead to treatment for the disease,” he said.

Issued: March 19, 2012

JCU Media Liaison, Jim O’Brien 07 4781 4822 or 0418 892449