Cairns’ top tuberculosis expert says fight against TB ‘must start offshore’

A CHIEF TB specialist in Cairns says most of the state’s hospital and health services don’t have staff qualified to treat tuberculosis, and the best bet to stop it reaching them is to boost TB testing in the Torres Strait. Cairns TB Unit director Dr Graham Simpson said Cairns had easy access to drugs that do work to treat the deadly multi-drug-resistant TB, but that didn’t mean it was conquerable. “At one point in about 2008 or 2009 Cairns was treating more than 50 per cent of all MDR-TB cases in Australia, so we’ve got more experience doing so than any other single centre over the last 10-15 years,” he said. “It’s very unusual to die on treatment for TB, but with MDR-TB even with the best treatment in the world it happens.” But Cairns was luckier than most health services, he said, given only “a limited amount” of TB expertise existed statewide and most health services were serviced by regional TB control units only. “We’ve been doing that to the Torres Strait for years now, and we need to carry on doing that,” he said. “We also have to be doing more testing for TB there – more X-rays and more bacteriological testing – to make sure everyone with symptoms is getting tested. “It’s vital, too, that we continue to try and support the PNG TB services and we have to increase surveillance in that area and education or local medical and nursing staff about the disease is important.” Dr Simpson said it was a “mistake” for the Government to close specialist TB clinics on PNG’s outer islands, and it was too difficult to re-establish the specialist TB clinics on Boigu and Saibai Islands which were closed in 2012. “TB is now going to be an ongoing issue here, and we’re just going to have to deal with it,” he said. Federal Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch said Australia needed “proper” TB facilities on Saibai Island as a staging point and accommodation for specialists to base themselves and travel to the front line of the TB battle in PNG. He also called for TB clinic arrangements in PNG’s 13 Treaty Villages. A pilot program is currently being negotiated using Federal Government funds in four of the villages, he said, which would enable specialists to travel from Saibai to treat patients in PNG or disperse them from there, eliminating the need for the infected to travel to the Torres Strait. A spokesman for the Federal Department of Health said all new cases of TB in Australia were notified to the Commonwealth via the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. “Australia is currently working with the PNG National Department of Health and development partners to escalate the TB response in high-burden geographical areas including the National Capital District, Gulf and Western Provinces,” the spokesman said.