6 December 2023
A critical funding grant will launch a QIMR Berghofer-led mission to eliminate one of the world’s most neglected and dangerous tropical diseases, endemic in remote Indigenous communities across Australia.
The multidisciplinary team has been awarded a $5 million Synergy Grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to eliminate strongyloidiasis, a little-known and potentially fatal infection caused by the parasitic worm, Strongyloides stercoralis which thrives in communities with poor sanitation.
Professor Darren Gray, project-lead and Director of QIMR Berghofer’s Population Health Program, said an effort to control the parasite and eliminate its deadly diseases is long overdue, and will have a profound impact on the health of Indigenous Australians.
“Strongyloidiasis is the most neglected of the neglected diseases. Despite being preventable and treatable, there is currently no global or national control strategy to manage its identification, prevention and management,” Professor Gray said.
“With an estimated prevalence of up to 60 per cent, Aboriginal communities in northern Australia appear to have one of the highest rates of strongyloidiasis in the world.
“Our project has the potential to eliminate this potentially fatal infection, which has a devastating effect on some of our country’s most vulnerable people,” said Professor Gray.
Strongyloidiasis symptoms are highly variable but the infection can lead to life-threatening diseases including sepsis and pneumonia. It is caused by roundworms which enter the body through the skin and invade the lungs and gut.
Infestations are linked to faecal contamination and dogs may also play a role in the parasite’s life-cycle. Addressing poor sanitation and hygiene, a lack of clean water, and limited access to health care and health education are crucial to controlling the parasite.
Dr Catherine Gordon, a member of the QIMR Berghofer team and molecular parasitologist, said strongyloidiasis is notoriously difficult to detect.
“If you don’t look for this disease, you won’t find it. To date, there has been a lack of screening, testing, and education.
“Our project will develop and validate new diagnostics including inexpensive and rapid diagnostic tests which can be conducted and assessed in the field,” said Dr Gordon.
With the support of the NHMRC Synergy Grant, QIMR Berghofer’s cross-functional team will seek to determine the true burden of the disease in East Arnhem Land and what role animals play in transmission.
The team will pilot an elimination program at two sites, combining treatment, improved sanitation and hygiene, community engagement, education, veterinary management and surveillance.
Professor Gray said in addition to eliminating strongyloidiasis, this program is expected to reduce the impact of other common and preventable infections of poverty including scabies and group A streptococcus, ultimately reducing the burden of Rheumatic Heart Disease.
The project is expected to have far-reaching consequences in the treatment and elimination of a number of serious diseases of poverty in Australia, South-East Asia and beyond.
“This research is a game-changer for the control of infectious diseases of poverty globally and could ultimately contribute to the breaking of the poverty cycle by improving health and wellbeing and increasing educational attainment and economic output,” Professor Gray said.
This research program brings together a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and community, including critical partnerships with Strongyloides Australia, Miwatj Health Aboriginal Service, Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities, East Arnhem Regional Council, NT Health, NT Power and Water and NSW Health Pathology.
About the research team
The multi-disciplinary team includes a mix of researchers from QIMR Berghofer, Flinders University, Doherty Institute and University of Melbourne, Australian National University, UNSW, Federation University Australia, and Central Queensland University. Researchers include:
• Senior researchers – Darren Gray, Beverley-Ann Biggs, Mick Adams, Siddhartha Mahanty, Kirstin Ross, Jennifer Shield and John Kaldor
• Senior practitioners – Bronwyn Rossingh, Wendy Page, Stephen Muhi and Matthew Watts
• Emerging leaders – Catherine Gordon and Richard Bradbury
• Early career researchers – Tamara Riley
• Indigenous researchers – Mick Adams, Tamara Riley; Sean Taylor and Greg Pratt.