‘Threat is real’: Infectious outbreak fears

REPORTS of three Border Force officers contracting a devastating infectious disease have triggered calls to ramp up treatment and vaccine research in the Torres Strait.

A leaked Border Force email has confirmed three officers had tested positive for tuberculosis in pre-deployment screening.

The origin of the disease was not known but there were fears the officers could have contracted it while engaged in Operation Overarch.

The operation was launched in March last year to enhance border measures and reduce the threat of COVID-19 spreading within the Torres Strait protected zone, particularly from nearby Papua New Guinea.

Officially there are currently no known cases of tuberculosis in the Torres Strait - but Cairns-based Labor Senator Nita Green said Australia could not afford to be complacent.

"If there are unknown cases of tuberculosis within the Torres Strait, then Queensland Health and Home Affairs need to get on top of that straight away," she said.

"These members of the Australian Border Force are the officers that protect our borders, and we need to make sure we are protecting them."

Tuberculosis medicine is seen at a tuberculosis clinic in Port Moresby. PICTURE: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
Tuberculosis medicine is seen at a tuberculosis clinic in Port Moresby. PICTURE: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Cairns was not immune from the threat, with a high transient population moving between the mainland and the islands of the Torres Strait.

Sania Wosomo, a 32-year-old mother-of-three originally from Saibai Island, died in Cairns Hospital in September 2014 from complications arising from complications arising from the disease.

She was a relative of Mareta Wosomo - the first Queenslander to die from drug-resistant tuberculosis in April 2013

A community health worker sits in front of a map, showing tuberculosis cases at a tuberculosis clinic in Port Moresby in 2015. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, Papua New Guinea has the second highest tuberculosis rates in the Western Pacific region. PICTURE: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
A community health worker sits in front of a map, showing tuberculosis cases at a tuberculosis clinic in Port Moresby in 2015. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, Papua New Guinea has the second highest tuberculosis rates in the Western Pacific region. PICTURE: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch said the official numbers did not tell the whole story.

"There certainly has been tuberculosis in the Torres Strait, make no bones about it," he said.

"There is certainly tuberculosis in the Western Province (of PNG) and there have been clusters on the outer islands of the Torres Strait that I've been aware of.

"Queensland Health didn't want to acknowledge it, but they were there.

"The State Government won't give me the figures, but we do have tuberculosis on the ward at Cairns Hospital from time to time.

"There's no point denying it - it is there."

Mr Entsch, chairman of the Australian Tuberculosis Caucus and executive of the Bill Gates-funded Global TB Caucus, said more money needed to be spent to create a tuberculosis vaccine.

Drug-resistant tuberculosis is still prevalent in areas of PNG.
Drug-resistant tuberculosis is still prevalent in areas of PNG.

"COVID-19 has given me great hope that we can do the same thing for tuberculosis," he said.

"We've had a lot longer to work on it.

"The last vaccine was in 1921, and it was only effective for a small cohort of kids under the age of five.

"It is absolutely useless to anyone else."

He was not worried that the Border Force infections could prove fatal.

"They're lucky that they are in a first-world country and get first world health care, so they will survive very well," he said.

"But it does highlight the fact that the threat is real, it sits close by and we need to focus on it."

An Australian Border Force spokesman said the organisation did not comment on matters related to individual employees.

"All staff who are operationally deployed receive routine health screening and have access to physical and mental health supports," he said.

"Should these screenings determine any adverse medical conditions, officers are encouraged to follow medical advice provided to them."

Originally published as 'Threat is real': Infectious outbreak fears spark urgent calls


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