IN an interesting juxtaposition, a Nobel Prize winning researcher has highlighted the increasing evidence of infections causing cancers as the Australian Government decides not to renew funding for a program that is integral to investigating unusual infectious events.

Professor Emeritus Harald zur Hausen, a German virologist, was joint winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine for breakthrough work in cervical cancer and HIV, which included investigating why viruses might play an important role in cancer.(1)

Last week while visiting Australia he told the ABC’s AM program there was mounting evidence to suggest lymphoma and leukaemia can be caused by infections, whether viral, bacterial or parasitic.(2)

This week in the MJA a group of Australian experts has outlined its dismay at the Australian Government’s decision not to renew federal funding for the Master of Applied Epidemiology (MAE) program at the Australian National University.(3)

The Australian experts said in an MJA editorial that the program provided the investigative backbone to the Communicable Diseases Network Australia for nearly 20 years.

The loss of funding resulted from a decision to make the MAE part of the Public Health Education and Research Program, which has now been terminated by the Cabinet.

The authors said the MAE puts its intake of “outstanding health professionals” through intensive training in the field during the 2-year course.

Trainees were immersed in disease surveillance and outbreak investigations at health agencies throughout Australia.

“They serve as a flying squad to respond at short notice to unusual infectious disease events that present potential threats to the population’s health,” the authors said.

“Over two decades, 160 MAE trainees have played central roles in stemming the spread of about 200 epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), pandemic (H1N1) 2009 influenza, Hendra virus, food-borne infections, and many others.”

The authors said MAE graduates had gone on to become national and, in some cases, international leaders in public health.

They said a review of the program earlier this year was “unequivocal in recommending that it should continue as a key element of Australia’s disease control activity”.

“[The loss of the program] will leave Australia vulnerable at a time when increasing population movements, changing climate and other pressures increase the likelihood that we will face new pandemics and the re-emergence of old ones.”

“Infections respect neither state nor national boundaries, and under Australia’s political structure their control can only be achieved through a consistent, coordinated effort by the federal and jurisdictional governments,” the authors said.

Meanwhile, Professor zur Hausen told the ABC there was some likelihood that if infections are involved in cancer they are transmitted vertically, from the mother to the unborn baby, and the new-born baby would not react immunologically against the respective infection.

If such a theory proves correct, controlling infectious diseases, including outbreaks, could take on a new urgency.

2. ABC AM 2010; 10 Nov.
3. Med J Aust 2010; 193: 567-568.


Posted 15 November 2010

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