TWO weeks ago a Torres Strait islander died in Cairns hospital from the mutant strain of tuberculosis that originates from Papua New Guinea.
“She was a close contact of a known TB case with the drug resistant strain on Saibai Island a couple of years ago,” said Dr Stephen Vincent, director of thoracic medicine at the Cairns Base Hospital.
“So in reality this is the first Australian citizen to Australian citizen transfer of this particular strain of TB.”
In PNG, tuberculosis is at crisis levels, especially in Western Province which borders on Australian islands in Torres Strait in far-north Queensland.
Hundreds of people cross the border every day. Papua New Guineans come to trade goods and Torres Strait islanders go to visit family. But in recent years they have been carrying an unwelcome passenger.
“Essentially the horse has bolted, we tried very hard to stave off TB getting into Australia, especially multi-drug resistant TB,” said Dr Vincent.
“There are two factors that are out of our control. One is that PNG has essentially declared a state of emergency as far as TB goes. They have death every two hours and more than 50% of their TB tested is multi-drug resistant.
“The other issue is the treaty zone between the outer islands of the Torres Strait and the Western Province of PNG, where there’s free movement of Torres Strait islanders to PNG and PNG nationals to the Torres Strait.”
The Queensland and federal governments have long expected multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) would eventually jump the border into Australia but argued over whose responsibility it was to deal with it.
MDR TB is tuberculosis which has become resistant to two of the essential drugs used to treat it. New drugs are still under development.
While multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is now in Australia, authorities say people have nothing to fear.
“Measures currently in place to control and manage TB in the Torres Strait and throughout Queensland will continue to protect the population,” Queensland Health told SBS World News.
Two TB clusters in the Torres Strait are currently under investigation by the Queensland Health department on the orders of the minister.
Dr Tom Konstantinos, former director of Queensland Health’s TB Services, believes Torres Strait and Papua New Guinean communities on mainland Australia like in Cairns are also at risk.
“People in households can be with an infectious case for many months which allows transmission to occur and then that transmission can extend further when people start to mingle in social groups,” said Dr Konstantinos.
TB is a slow and persistent epidemic and can take up to 10 years to incubate. It could be years before the full extent of its reach in Australia is known.
“At the moment the risk is low but once you’ve got MDR in the country the risk is high, and it’s high for the future, and we predicted this a couple of years ago,” said Dr Vincent.