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SA tuberculosis outbreak linked to death in WA

More than 700 people have been screened for the deadly tuberculosis disease in the state’s Far North, where Health Minister Chris Picton has confirmed there are currently 11 active cases.

Sep 08, 2023, updated Sep 08, 2023

An outbreak was declared in March on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY) after 10 cases of the bacteria-spread disease were recorded.

DNA testing showed the current cases are linked to a death interstate within the past few years, along with another historical case in Western Australia from 2010.

Tuberculosis (TB) can cause long-term lung damage or death and a SA Health spokesperson said it can require around six months of complex treatment.

Picton, who is visiting the APY Lands this week, said $1.9 million funding was announced in June to help fight the outbreak with more community engagement and an education campaign.

Funds are also being used to upskill health practitioners who may not have previously seen TB in their practices.

“Tuberculosis is preventable and curable and we are committed to doing all we can to stop this cluster from growing,” Picton said.

“We are promoting awareness and facilitating quick testing and treatment.”

Teams from health and pathology departments have attended the APY Lands since December to screen community members and coordinate testing.

Chief Public Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier travelled with the team in August and said people can carry TB but it can take years to develop and “months of complex medication to treat”.

Spurrier said SA was now involved in a trial to not only treat active cases but also latent cases of TB that are not creating any symptoms as Australia works toward eliminating TB transmission.

“We have an Aboriginal health team to do community engagement and to have discussions with communities, what we learned with the COVID-19 pandemic was that things work better when we work with communities,” said Spurrier, who also visited the the region in February.

“During those conversations the Aboriginal people, many in the community, were very concerned about TB, many knew about TB and knew in past generations TB had been a problem on the lands.”

SA’s Deputy State Coroner Ian White oversaw an inquest separate to the current outbreak during 2021, looking into the deaths of a young girl and an international adult from TB infections in Adelaide to examine how opportunities for diagnosis were missed.

Monineath Chum, 9, died in hospital in February 2017 after being ill for several months, while 29-year-old Rehema Shariff Kangethe was found dead in her bed at home in 2018.

In both cases White raised concerns about monitoring in the lead up to their deaths.

During his trip to the APY Lands this week, Picton has also visited the site where a purpose-built house for health workers is being built on the APY Lands as part of safety upgrades arising from Gayle’s Law.

Funding of $5.2 million was committed by the State Government as part of an agreement with the Nganampa Health Council (NHC) to improve safety for health workers, nurses and medical officers on the APY Lands.

It includes the expansion of the ‘On Call Support Worker Program’ which trains second responders who accompany health practitioners during after-hours callouts.

Gayle’s Law, named after murdered nurse Gayle Woodford, came into force in 2019. It requires health practitioners in remote areas of South Australia to be accompanied by a second responder when attending out-of-hours or unscheduled callouts.

In the past year, 17 on-call support workers have been recruited for the APY Lands bringing the total number to 44, and Picton said further recruitment is underway.

Funding for a purpose-built staff housing complete with appropriate safety precautions in the Umuwa community to support this expanded model of care is also part of the agreement.

The prefabricated building is being constructed in Alice Springs and is due for delivery later this year.

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