The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) hosted the biennial Communicable Diseases Control Conference 2019 this week to create connections between First Nations and non-First Nations peoples working within the health sphere to overcome the inequities within and realities of infectious diseases in Australia.

The Conference ran from November 20-21, gathering over 350 healthcare professionals, scientists and researchers to bring forward a portfolio of information around infectious diseases.

The Conference held space for presentations around First Nations health which acknowledge the achievement and challenges around vaccine preventable diseases in First Nations Peoples and the necessity of their voices in public health emergencies.

National Health and Medical Research Council Career Fellow of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University, Professor Martyn Kirk presented at the Conference and noted the importance of the event in creating connection.

“The Conference theme [was] around partnerships for controlling infectious diseases and controlling infectious diseases relies on cooperation between community, clinicians and public health services [in] managing this,” Professor Kirk said.

The Conference covered topics such as linking data together to better understand the source of infectious disease, the impact of crowding in households on infectious diseases and also hosted sessions that addressed improving the control of infectious diseases in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

CEO of The Telethon Kids Institute and paediatrician and infectious diseases specialist Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM presented alongside CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Gundanji and Arrernte woman Pat Turner AM.

Professor Carapetis has worked closely with Strep A and Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) since the early 1990s.

“It is critical for all people involved in communicable disease control to understand the importance of these diseases for Aboriginal health [as] they contribute to be an unacceptable gap in health outcomes,” Professor Carapetis said.

“There are diseases that are causing huge suffering and mortality in Aboriginal communities that have almost disappeared from non-Aboriginal Australia and that is something people need to be aware of – it is a national shame – we need to tackle it seriously.”

Professor Carapetis hoped to send a direct message to those present at the Conference.

“It is all well and good for us to come up with individual pieces of evidence and individual solutions to problems. But if they just sit in journal articles and don’t get implemented it’s a waste of time,” he said.

“We have leadership from the people on the ground delivering services in the communities living with [RHD] and then we have researchers … supporting that, providing the pieces of evidence and the recipe of what needs to be done, but the community guides how it is done.”

“This is Canberra, we are working hard to let the Government, both Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments, know that they need to be part of this as well.”

Professor Carapetis believes that with the movement towards understanding and overcoming RHD in First Nations communities comes the ability to overcome several other infectious diseases.

“If we get this right for RHD, we won’t just get it right for RHD because we are going to have to deal with housing, education and the sorts of conditions that are responsible for a range of other health problems in Aboriginal communities – this is comprehensive, the lens of RHD provides a new approach to closing the gap.”

To coincide with the Conference, the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) released two new and accessible reports that address vaccine preventable diseases within First Nations communities.

By Rachael Knowles