Concerns were raised at the Australasian Epidemiological Association meeting in Sydney yesterday about the demise of the Masters of Epidemiology program at the ANU, and how this will compromise Australia’s ability to respond to future infectious diseases threats.

Below is a statement from  Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, who was the Founding Director of The National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU from 1989 to 2001.

Bob Douglas writes:

“Australia is dismantling its flying squad capacity for the control and prevention of epidemics of infectious diseases at a time when the effects of climate change will multiply epidemic and pandemic threats.

The $1.9 million program that is based at the ANU recruits outstanding students from the health professions to undertake a paid apprenticeship for 21 months in the surveillance and control of communicable diseases.

Trainees spend about 11 weeks in coursework at the ANU and the remainder of their time as full-time registrars in Indigenous and communicable diseases agencies in the states and the Commonwealth. They constitute a flying squad, available to work both together and separately with their agencies on surveillance and epidemic infectious disease outbreak activities.

The Australian program was established in 1992 with the assistance of the US Centres for Disease Control and in turn has helped to establish similar programs in a number of countries in Asia during the past 15 years. The supervisory team at ANU works closely with federal and state health authorities and mobilises trainees to work together in locations where a particular threat is perceived to warrant their contributions.

Like its counterpart program in the United States, the graduates of the Australian program have become public health leaders in Australia and internationally.  At the time of the SARS epidemic in 2003, trainees and graduates of the Australian program played a leading role internationally in containing the epidemic. Repeated reviews of the ANU program and its impact on Australian infectious diseases control have been positive and the program has won praise and prizes for its practical contributions and its teaching and practical excellence.

About five years ago, for administrative convenience, the funding for the program was rolled into a funding pool known as the Public Health Education and Research Program (PHERP), which also funded other training programs in public health in academic institutions around the country.

For perhaps more justifiable reasons, the Commonwealth had placed a time limit on federal funding for the PHERP program and when in 2009 cabinet decided to terminate that program, the ANU program was terminated along with it.

A review of the program in February 2010 firmly recommended that it should be continued and that to discontinue its current role would leave serious gaps in Australia’s capacity. While acknowledging the benefits to Australia, federal authorities make the point that the most importantbeneficiaries of the program are the state governments and that they should contribute if such a program is to be maintained. (Sound a familiar argument?)

Meanwhile, the program is winding down with no replacement capacity in sight.

The flying squad capacity has always been a key strength of this program.

It has been central to the nation’s capacity to respond rapidly to epidemic threats such as the recent swine influenza outbreak and it is about to expire.  It leaves Australia exposed and vulnerable at a time of growing threats from infectious diseases. It seems to be another instance of policy failing because of our complex federation of states.”

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The epidemiologists yesterday resolved to take their concerns to the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon.

But perhaps the PM herself should intervene. At the conference dinner last night, those musos of public health, The Faux Pas, ended their set with a special tribute to J-U-L-I-A (in the vein of Gloria).

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