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Friday, 25 November 2011
Page: 9724

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (17:25): I would like to take this opportunity to update the Senate on recent developments in the fight against meningococcal disease. I have spoken previously in this chamber on the frightening risks and devastating consequences of meningococcal, but this afternoon I would like to report on an important initiative which will make the fight against this disease more effective. Last week I had the privilege of opening the 2011 National Meningococcal Disease Conference. It was a significant event because at that conference a number of state based foundations realised a long-held ambition to collaborate and establish a national identity—Meningococcal Australia.

Meningococcal Australia is the result of a collaboration between the Caleb Thorburn Foundation of Victoria, the Amanda Young Foundation of Western Australia, and the Troy Pocock Foundation and the Violet Foundation of New South Wales. In creating a national identity, these groups aim to further promote medical research and development, community awareness and education.

Meningococcal Australia's first national awareness day was held on 2 September this year and involved many awareness-raising activities. One example was participants being asked to wear the colour purple and to stop using their right arm for 15 minutes, a measure aimed at recognising some of the challenges of a life impacted by this deadly disease. There was extensive engagement with the community and substantial media coverage on the day.

The creation of this national body enhances rather than diminishes the importance of the work undertaken by each state based foundation. I have seen some of the work of these state based foundations firsthand and I know they have been vital in assisting so many. I commend their leadership for banding together to form Meningococcal Australia. It is a reflection of a shared vision, a shared determination and a shared commitment to reduce the incidence of meningococcal disease and to improve the health outcomes for survivors.

Many volunteer organisations outside of government and the health profession are contributing magnificently to the fight against meningococcal disease. Media attention on deaths this year in North Queensland and Tasmania and recent outbreaks in the New England region of New South Wales remind us that the fight against this disease is very far from over. The death of a student from Perth at a Townsville university, where at least one other student was also infected with meningococcal disease, highlights not only the severity of the disease but also its ability to spread and cause outbreaks, while the tragedy of the recent death of a seven-day-old baby in New South Wales demonstrates how this disease does not discriminate in its devastating impact.

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection, not caused by a virus but by a bacterial germ with the disturbing ability to mutate and so evade the body's immune system. This is the reason we continue to see new outbreaks of the disease every winter, with even bigger surges of the disease every five to 15 years.

Thankfully, meningococcal disease is a rare disease. But that is of little comfort to the hundreds of ordinary Australians affected by it every year. Children under five years of age and young adults aged 15 to 24 years are most at risk. Although most victims will fully recover, up to one in 10 will die, and one in every five will be left with permanent disabilities.

Vaccines are currently available for four out of the five strains of meningococcal disease, including the deadly C strain. Australia was among the first five countries in the world to introduce a vaccine against group C disease. The results have been more than impressive, with 95 per cent vaccine effectiveness among children, teenagers and young adults. Even unvaccinated people have received a high level of protection, because the vaccine has also reduced transmission of the bacterium between people—the help provided by herd immunity, if you like.

The latest data from Australia's national notifiable neisseria disease network shows a rise of 14 per cent in 2011 of confirmed meningococcal disease cases compared with 2010 This is almost entirely due to meningococcal B disease, the only type we still do not have a vaccine for. Having said that, it is true to say that initial trials of vaccines against meningococcal B have been promising. My hope is that these vaccines may soon be within our grasp.

Both the state based charities and the new national advisory body, Meningococcal Australia, will play a crucial role in educating the public and supporting those who have suffered personally as a result of meningococcal disease. The work undertaken by what is really just a handful of dedicated and committed volunteers in the fight against meningococcal disease is inspirational. That work is essential for the support of meningococcal disease survivors, for the comfort of the bereaved and for the prevention of this disease through raising awareness and undertaking vaccine and other medical research of the highest calibre. What they do is making a real difference. Tonight, in this, the last Senate speech of calendar year 2011, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and applaud their efforts.

Senate adjourned at 17:33