Public health in these areas has already come a long way, thanks in part to a rare outbreak of Japanese encephalitis on Badu Island in the Torres Strait in the mid 1990s. The virus, which caused multiple deaths, led to what David calls “a multi-prong health approach that really exemplifies what environmental health science can do.”
After eradicating the virus, the government implemented an environmental health infrastructure program across the Torres Strait worth close to $140 million, which has markedly increased the living standards of the people in those regions.
“This is supposed to be a first world nation, and yet we still had this community of 6000 people facing increased risk from basic living standards and a vaccine-preventable disease. These developments improved water drainage, sewage treatment, and provided vaccination against Japanese encephalitis. There were many, many projects that have increased the standard of living for people,” David says.
A more recent example is the waterborne bacterium called melioidosis, which became a public health issue in Townsville after the February 2019 floods, with 13 confirmed cases and one death. Health authorities advised that people who had compromised immunity and were more susceptible to the bacteria should stay away from the clean-up effort until the soil had dried out.
Public health strategies like this can be taken for granted, though. Known or expected incidences of disease are managed by complex systems that are in operation 24/7. These systems are costly to run, and need to be maintained constantly by health professionals.
“Living in a first world nation, we tend to take a lot of that for granted,” says David. “In a way, it’s good to have minor incidences happen every now and then, to remind us of the necessity to have rules and regulations in place to manage the health risks we face every day.”