Featured News Science leader wanted to address global health threats

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Fri, 30 Aug 2019

Science leader wanted to address global health threats

CSIRO visit  - Minister Andrews and AITHM researcher Cathy Rush
AITHM researcher Assoc. Prof. Cathy Rush and the Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews

James Cook University and the CSIRO will be focusing on diseases that spread from animals to people as they join forces to recruit a top scientist and launch a new joint research programme.

The new role will be based at JCU’s College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences in Townsville.  Dean of the College, Professor Maxine Whittaker, said it’s estimated that 75 per cent of infectious diseases in humans originate in animals, and the frequency of such transmissions has been steadily increasing over time.

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

“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).”

She said that in Australia the opportunities for infectious diseases to spread at the intersection of livestock/poultry, wildlife and humans have increased markedly over the past 20 years. Alarmingly, many of these infections are emerging as resistant to current drugs.

“These situations are known to result in disease outbreaks in Asia and Africa on an ever-increasing basis. Australia is at an increased risk for similar disease events occurring, particularly Northern Australia,” said Professor Whittaker.

She said an agreement had been reached with the CSIRO to jointly appoint a Science Leader in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“The Science Leader will be someone who is well-recognised in their field, with a good track record of delivering useable science and as a team leader,” said Professor Whittaker.

“The role will be responsible for leading and conducting innovative research in emerging infectious diseases leading to scientific achievements that are aligned with JCU and CSIRO’s strategies, which are aligned to those of Australia and globally,” she said.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews welcomed the collaboration between two of Australia’s leading biosecurity research organisations to protect Australia from the growing threat of zoonotic diseases.

“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,” said Minister Andrews.

CSIRO Chair, David Thodey AO, said CSIRO’s wide-ranging expertise, broad geographical footprint and commitment to collaboration can connect knowledge and research capability from Northern Australia to Victoria 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 solve them.”

Northern Australia is at increased risk of infectious diseases found in South East Asia because of its close proximity to Asia, potentially providing a gateway to the rest of Australia.

Australia’s susceptibility is also increased because of global mobility, growing trade, increased urbanisation leading to human encroachment into wildlife habitats, expanding agricultural development including the rise of peri-urban farming, as well as environmental and land use changes.


Professor Maxine Whittaker
E: Maxine.whittaker@jcu.edu.au