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Wednesday, 18 February 1959

Dr DONALD CAMERON (OXLEY, QUEENSLAND) (Minister for Health) . - Let me begin by congratulating you, Mr. Speaker, on your re-election to the Chair. May I say how glad we are that you are to continue to be, if I may use the expression, the deus ex machina of this chamber. I would also like to offer my congratulations to the mover and seconder of this motion for the adoption of the Address-in-Reply. Perhaps the best I can do is to say that I hope they will enjoy the esteem and respect that was enjoyed by the previous occupiers of their two seats in this House.

The Governor-General's Speech was concerned, to a large extent, with national development. I suppose it is natural, when we think of national development, to think of material development, of industrial development, of more roads, railways, air services, growing towns, more manufactures, and things of that nature. These are, of course, manifestations of national development, and it is a fact that there has been rapid and striking development in all these directions during the term of office of the present Government. But scientific development and technical arrangements have to keep pace with this material development; in fact, in many instances they have to precede it in order to make it possible. It is about these aspects that I wish particularly to speak to-night, and I intend to confine myself to their application to the Department of Health.

During the last nine years there has been great progress in sociological developments in medicine in this country. The House is quite familiar with them. We have seen the introduction and development of a national health insurance scheme. We have seen the introduction of a pensioner medical service and a pharmaceutical benefits scheme. We have seen also, perhaps not strictly in the sociological field but in con nexion with scientific developments in medicine, great advances in preventive medicine, none of which, perhaps, has been more important than the campaign for mass immunization against poliomyelitis by means of the Salk vaccine. All these things have bulked so large in popular notice that it is, perhaps, forgotten or overlooked that the Department of Health and the Government have simultaneously been pursuing great scientific objectives, on which the worth of all these other services ultimately depends.

There are four aspects of this matter perhaps not generally understood or appreciated, but very important in our national health services, about which I wish to speak chiefly to-night. When I have said what I wish to say about them, I will by no means have exhausted the activities of the federal Government in the field of health which are discharged through the Department of Health. However, these are the only matters about which I will have time to speak to-night.

The first is concerned with the production and employment of biological products. By these I mean such things as sera, vaccines, hormone preparations, as, for instance, insulin, and, of course, the antibiotics, such as penicillin, terramycin, Chloromycetin and others in the great range of them. These substances have, within the last few years, completely changed the whole face of the practice of medicine. Their use is a matter of immense importance in this country.

The supply of these substances has two sources. Some are imported. They are not manufactured in Australia but are used here. However, a great range of them is manufactured in Australia, and many of the most important that are used are manufactured only in Australia and not imported at all.

Mr Pollard - Manufactured by whom?

Dr DONALD CAMERON (OXLEY, QUEENSLAND) (Minister for Health) - I will tell the honorable member in a moment. Of those used in Australia and manufactured here, and not imported, practically all - although not entirely all - are manufactured in the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne which, of course, form part of the Commonwealth Department of Health.

Mr Pollard - What a wonderful piece of socialism!

Dr DONALD CAMERON (OXLEY, QUEENSLAND) (Minister for Health) - That is just nonsense, Mr. Speaker. We can say, then, that the basis of all these great advances in the practice of medicine to which I have been referring, and particularly as far as this country is concerned, lies in the efficient functioning of these great laboratories, where there are now about 900 persons employed. These great medical advances have their basis not only in the efficient functioning of the laboratories, but also in the improvement of their techniques, in the research that is carried on in them, and in their cooperation with other similar institutions in other parts of the world. In this connexion, I am glad to say that we have access to many scientific processes because of our liaison and co-operation with other great manufacturing institutions of this nature in other countries.

I am sure that the House will appreciate that it is important not only to have a supply of the substances to which I have referred, but also to ensure that, just as there are standards of accuracy in other fields, such as that of weights and measures, and just as there are standards of purity, potency, safety and effectiveness required with regard to what I might roughly describe as inorganic medicines, the ordinary pharmaceutical preparations, so it is important that there should be national standards and facilities for testing all the biological products that we use in this country. It will be realized that the setting up of these standards requires, in the first place, highly skilled personnel, and in the second place, a first class laboratory and facilities for those persons to function efficiently.

I think it is also important, or at any rate highly desirable, that the laboratory should be located in the national capital. The Government has, accordingly, taken steps to set up this national biological standards biological laboratory. We are in the process of setting it up here, and the job is the responsibility of the Department of Health. I would like to read to the House the charter for this laboratory, and tell honorable members what its functions are to be. In the first place it is to act as agent for the Director-General in the examination of goods referred to it; that is, goods having a therapeutic substance. Secondly, it is concerned with the testing of new therapeutic substances. Thirdly, it has to provide expert advice to the Department of Health on these matters - and also, of course, to the medical profession and to other persons concerned. Fourthly, it has to prepare, distribute and keep Australian national standards of biological and pharmaceutical preparations, and to collaborate with other laboratories in the establishment of new international standards.

I am sure honorable members will realize that this is a most important step, and that they will be glad to hear that we have secured the services of a highly skilled medical scientist, a doctor, to act as director of this laboratory. With the co-operation and assistance of the Australian National University, we have secured buildings in which the laboratory will commence to function, and we have also secured a great deal of material. The laboratory is now about to commence operating. That, I think, is a matter of immense scientific importance to medicine and health in Australia.

The second matter to which I want to refer, Sir, is the problem of living and working in the tropics. It is obvious, of course, with the development which is going on in the northern part of our continent, and in view of the conditions of climate and terrain and the general conditions which exist up there, that the correct solution of the problems of living and working there is of the utmost national importance. It will not be enough to make economic conditions attractive. It will not be enough to make taxation concessions. It will not be enough to open up roads, and that sort of thing. We must have a proper scientific investigation of the conditions under which people are to live there, and we must be assured of the arrangements which we ought to make in the light of that knowledge.

It is not just a question of studying tropical diseases and finding cures for them or taking preventive measures against them. This is being done, and has been done for many years, by the Department of Health, at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in Sydney. It is a question of the physiology of living and working in the tropics. Is efficiency impaired among the people who live there? Are sedentary workers able to do the same work there as they can do elsewhere? Are manual workers able to perform the same work, or should the conditions under which they work in tropical areas be modified? Can men work for such long hours there as they do in the south? Should their hours of work be differently arranged? All these questions, of course, have most important economic aspects as well as scientific aspects. We want to know whether tropical climates do in fact have adverse effects on the women and children who live in them. It has long been thought that they do. Is this belief well founded?

All these things are questions of great importance to the nation and we should know the answers, Sir. We can point, of course, to thriving tropical towns in the north, but are the conditions satisfactory for the continuing growth and prosperity of these places? We do not really know the answers, but we are setting about finding them. We have, accordingly, set up for the investigation of these problems, within the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in Sydney, a special department under the directorship of a most eminent physician who has already made a preliminary examination of these matters. About eighteen months or two years ago, he presented us with a preliminary report - a report which I thought was of such great importance that I had it printed and circulated to all members of the Parliament. I hope that all honorable members who have not read it in the past will read it now. This investigation is an important scientific advance which has taken place during the time when we have been actively engaged in developing all the great sociological aspects of medicine to which we have devoted so much attention during the past nine years.

The third matter to which I want to refer, Mr. Speaker, is our relations with the World Health Organization. It may be thought that perhaps this has not much application to the development of Australia. In fact, it has a great deal to do with it, because this organization is exerting a great and growing influence on the health of the whole world. That is an expansive statement, Sir, but it is a true one. The organization is becoming an increasingly important forum of consultation and discussion on medical subjects - and discussion at the highest level, because the member nations send some of their highest experts and administrators to take part in these discussions. They are concerned with matters of health which are of vital importance to us here in Australia. The plain truth is that we simply cannot afford not to take a prominent part in the activities of the World Health Organization.

I should like to give honorable members some idea of what these activities are, but I shall be able to mention only a few of them, Mr. Speaker. The organization is concerned with the eradication of some of the great epidemic diseases of the world - malaria, yaws, tuberculosis and others of that nature - with problems of radiation and with the investigation and ultimate control of such things as epidemics of influenza, which, though not always necessarily crippling in their own effects are often accompanied by serious diseases. The organization is concerned also with medical education and the elevation of standards of medical practice, with nutrition throughout the world and, above all, with co-operation and the spreading of knowledge among its members. All these, Sir, are most important things, from Australia's point of view. I think I can fairly say not only that they are matters which concern us to our own advantage, but also that, because of the standards of medical practice and public health in this country, Australia has something to contribute to these discussions and these arrangements, and has a duty to make that contribution. So we have taken a most active part in the World Health Organization, and it is of great importance that we should continue to do so. At present, Australia is one of the eighteen nations which constitute the executive board of the organization and thereby have a direct influence on its programme and its management.

The fourth and final thing about which I want to say something, Sir, is the question of ionizing radiation. This subject and its implications have become matters of burning discussion throughout the world, and they obviously are matters of the greatest! importance. What attitude should we adopt, individually and collectively, towards this kind of radiation? First of all, we should do our best to understand some of the elementary facts about it and avoid extravagant views and beliefs which are unsupported by proper evidence. I should like to suggest, if I may, Mr. Speaker, a few things which could guide us in formulating our attitude. Broadly speaking, there are two sources of this radiation. First, there is what is known as background radiation. This, of course, comes from the cosmic rays which reach us from outer space, and from various radio-active sources in the world around us. Man has always been exposed to background radiation, and always will be exposed to it. There is nothing which we can do about this. But it is there, and we should realize the quantum of it in the total effects of ionizing radiation to which we are subjected. The second source, of course, is what we can broadly call man-made radiation - artificially produced radiation. This is present in addition to the background radiation, and it is produced partly by apparatus such as X-ray machines and partly by the processes of atomic fission and atomic fusion, and is liberated, broadly speaking, at large from atomic explosions, in a controlled form as radio-active isotopes, or in atomic energy which is used in industrial or scientific work. So we have these two sources of the ionizing radiation to which we are exposed.

Perhaps we might think, Sir, that it would be better if we had never learned to split the atom and had not been exposed to the risks which go with the splitting of the atom, because there are risks, and they are considerable. But, of course, that would be only an academic and philosophical reflection. The plain fact is that we live in a world in which these radiations exist. We have to find some practical and commonsense approach to them, and some practical way to continue to exist in the presence of these radiations by learning to control and use them. This is not perhaps the time for much discussion about what effects have already been caused in the world by the liberation of artificially produced ionizing radiations, Sir, but I think it is fair comment to say - and this is supported by what is probably the best scientific opinion - that so far, with one or two notable exceptions, those effects, broadly speaking, have not been very serious. But that is not to say that, without control, that state of affairs will continue to exist.

Even though the damage already done may not have been very great, with the one or two exceptions which I have mentioned, there are constant dangers to which we must be alert and which we must be able to counter. There are dangers in the use of this kind of radiation, and infinitely greater dangers in its abuse. So we have to find some way of utilizing these radiations and preventing them from dominating us. But the fact that there is danger in their use is no reason for not availing ourselves of the great advantages that they bring, because in addition to dangers they do obviously bring very great advantages to mankind. It would be just as illogical to deprive ourselves of these as, because of the fact that there are dangers associated with the use of general anaesthesia or surgical procedures, to say that we should abolish the use of anaesthetics or desist from the operations of surgery.

I want to make it plain that this situation and these dangers are not overlooked by the Government or by the Department of Health. Within the department there is a very valuable institution, the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratory. It is not a new organization, of course. It has existed for many years, but its advice and direction have become more important and more sought after with the discovery of new techniques, with the availability of further radio active devices, and its advice and guidance are sought, not only by my own department but by other services and departments. In fact, its director and personnel have given the most valuable assistance in various fields.

In addition, a special committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council, which keeps in touch with the latest developments in the field of radioactivity, is available to the Department of Health to give us the benefit of its advice. Also, as honorable members will know, the Government has set up, outside the Department of Health, a National Radiation Advisory Committee. We are constantly in touch with world counsel and opinion through the World Health Organization and the special Committee on Radio-activity, which was set up by the United Nations. In fact, we were well represented on that committee.

Having all these sources of information and knowledge at our disposal, we have taken steps to translate them into effect by - amongst other things - the preparation of a model Radio-active Substances Act which can serve as a guide for the sovereign States of the Commonwealth with whom, of course, my department maintains constant liaison in this matter, as it does in other matters of health.

I said that this by no means exhausts the list of the activities of the Commonwealth Department of Health. That is to say, there are many other activities as well, but these are four important scientific activities which have gone on being developed, being put into use, and being maintained at the highest level. They are of immense value to the country. They have gone on more or less unnoticed and perhaps unknown, so I wanted to take this opportunity to-night, in speaking of the general development of Australia, to point out that although we have been engaged in great expansions of health services, we have backed them up and made them effective by the great scientific developments on which we are constantly concentrating within the Department of Health.

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