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Magazines : Our Place - Geelong Region Magazine 2011
A powerful collaboration between Deakin University, Barwon Heath and CSIRO is poised to realise an infectious disease centre that could place Geelong on the world medical map. Mandy Squires reports Few regions in the world are so uniquely positioned to become an international leader in emerging infectious diseases as Geelong. ankfully, the honour has less to do with the prevalence of Ross River Virus and Bairnsdale Ulcer in the region, than it does the breadth and depth of scientific and medical knowledge within its boundaries. Home to Barwon Health, the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) and Deakin University, Geelong is in a prime position to establish a world-class infectious diseases centre, according to the director of Bar won Health's Department of Infectious Diseases, Associate Professor Eugene Athan. e three institutions already have a track-record of successful collaboration on infectious diseases including influenza, the potentially deadly Hendra (equine) virus and Bairnsdale Ulcer. e proposal for a Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (GCEID) would see doctors and scientists from across the three institutions join forces to find ways of combating emerging infectious diseases, potentially saving many lives and putting Geelong on the world medical map, Dr Athan says. Geelong's Gordon TAFE, which trains lab technicians, would also be part of the collaboration. e proposed GCEID would effectively pool the knowledge of animal health scientists at the AAHL, with the human health knowledge of Dr Athan's infectious diseases team at Barwon Health and the knowledge of environmental sciences found at Deakin University. " e collaboration is about a new concept of 'one health', animal, human and environmental, and beginning to connect up the pieces between them,' ' Dr Athan says. AAHL director Professor Martyn Jeggo believes work completed at the proposed centre would be of international standing and help drive world public health policies and procedures. Fresh talks are now being held with the state and federal governments in a bid to secure funding for the centre, Dr Athan says. Signs are promising, at least from the federal front, with the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Kim Carr, making "very positive sounds" about the proposed centre at the launch of a new Deakin Life Sciences lab late-last year, he says. e Geelong Region Alliance is throwing its weight behind the funding bid, with its official Report to the Region, released in February this year, stating funds in the vicinity of $8 million are needed to establish the centre and cover ongoing costs. Once funding has been secured, the centre can be established quite quickly, Dr Athan says. Designed to help us understand and eradicate potentially fatal diseases which have the capacity to dramatically affect international industry, trade and travel, the GCEID would attract world-wide attention, he says. As well as playing a critical role in improving global, public health through the development of new diagnostic measures and vaccines for emerging diseases, the proposed GCEID would be a valuable training and teaching ground, Dr Athan believes. "What we are proposing is unique in this country,' ' he says. "It would have massive implications for human and animal health world-wide.' ' Nearly all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they originate in animals and transfer to humans, he says. SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Swine Flu and Mad Cow Disease are just three of the infectious disease outbreaks of the last decade which have profoundly impacted on the world economy and consciousness, Dr Athan says. More recently, an increased incidence of Ross River virus in Victoria following summer's heavy rains and floods demonstrates how animal, human and environmental science can be connected, he says. e Ross River virus is harboured in mammals (known as the disease reservoir) but does not make them sick, Dr Athan explains. It is then spread from mammals to humans by mosquitoes, which are in greater numbers as a result of the heavy rain. "When those mosquitoes bite humans we have a small epidemic on our hands.' ' Swine flu, as its name suggests, has its origins in pigs, while SARS originated from a small weasel-like mammal called a civet cat, sold in the markets of southern China. e 1997 avian flu epidemic in Hong Kong originated in poultry and spread to humans, resulting in the slaughter of 1.5 million chickens and ducks. And all flu viruses in existence have their origins in water fowl, Dr Athan says. e virus is then transferred to mammals or domestic birds or poultry, and from there can spread to humans. One of the world's most devastating diseases, HIV/AIDS, is an emerging infectious disease. Dr Jeggo says Deakin University's growing expertise in wildlife will be pivotal to the proposed GCEID's work. Associate head of research at Deakin's medical school and co-director of its new strategic molecular and medical research centre, Professor Alister Ward, says Deakin medical researchers will also play a key role in the GCEID. " e Deakin Medical School has actively recruited a world- class team of infectious disease researchers, who are tackling some of the major disease-causing agents, including avian influenza, malaria, HIV and various bacteria,' ' Dr Ward says. e researchers are part of Deakin's new Strategic Research Centre for Molecular and Medical Research, which aims to understand disease at the molecular level to allow new therapies to be developed to combat emerging diseases. "The Deakin Medical School has actively recruited a world-class team of infectious disease researchers, who are tackling some of the major disease-causing agents, including avian influenza, malaria, HIV and various bacteria.'' Barwon Health's Professor Eugene Athan ..."The collaboration is about a new concept of 'one health', animal, human and environmental, and beginning to connect up the pieces between them.'' Photo: Steven Morton. Our Place - the Geelong Region Magazine 15
Breakaway Autumn 2011