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Australians are increasingly threatened by parasitic diseases such as malaria, and the country's ability to respond to fresh outbreaks is declining, according to a study published by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. According to the report, new parasitic diseases are emerging and old ones are developing resistance to common drugs.
Malaria was eradicated from Australia in the 1960s but infects up to 800 Australian overseas travellers each year and continues to pose a threat.
Some 267 Australian soldiers serving on an international peacekeeping force in East Timor caught malaria despite extensive use of the anti-malarial drug doxycyclin, and many had relapses after treatment, it said.
"As a consequence of global warming malaria will threaten an increased proportion of the world's population and possibly could become re-established on the Australian mainland," the report said.
The group said other mosquito-spread diseases such as Ross River Fever are well established in Australia, with up to 5,000 people infected each year.
The study said drinking water is also vulnerable to parasitic diseases. In 1999, some four million people in Australia's largest city, Sydney, were ordered not to drink tap water for more than a week when it was contaminated by two parasites.
The report said Australia's ability to combat these emerging threats is hamstrung by a lack of resources and the dwindling number of scientists who specialize in parasitic diseases.
"Medical schools in Australia currently train almost no parasitologists," the report said. "(This) reflects the ignorance of university and government administrations and the lack of any policy for maintaining the supply of suitably trained graduates despite a demonstrated need."
The group recommended that the government provide more funding to develop a co-ordinated strategy for prediction, surveillance and control of infectious diseases, develop new drugs and bolster national education in parasitology.