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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 79

Senator McEWEN (7:59 PM) —In Australia right now there are approximately 9,000 people living with a spinal cord injury, and that number is on a steady upward incline. Unlike most medical conditions where the number of sufferers stays steady, or decreases as medical advancements are made, the number of people living with spinal cord injuries increases each year in Australia alone by about 400. This increase is largely due to two factors: there is currently no cure for spinal cord injury and there is no significant difference in life expectancy between a person with a spinal cord injury and a healthy person.

Spinal cord injuries can occur anywhere and at any time, but more often than not they occur in a motor vehicle accident or at work. In the 2003-04 financial year, 50 per cent of the new cases of traumatic spinal cord injuries recorded were through work related injuries. With only 40 per cent of these employees returning to paid employment, spinal cord injury has a significant impact on Australia’s workforce. Not only is spinal cord injury costly to the workforce; it is at great cost to victims, their families, communities and of course the government. A spinal cord injury costs in time, money and the victim’s quality of life. It takes 2½ hours per day for the victim to be prepared for the day and to be put into bed, a routine that requires the assistance of carers and family members every day of every week of every year. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the care and equipment costs for each person with spinal cord injury after hospitalisation are $284,000 per ventilator-dependent tetraplegic individual per year or $197,000 per non-ventilator-dependent tetraplegic individual per year. These extraordinary figures allow for attendant care and equipment only and do not include medical or ancillary treatment. If these were included, the cost would be likely to be far greater. Nationally, half a billion dollars is spent overall on people with spinal cord injury, again not including medical and hospital bills and ancillary care.

With such a significant amount of the nation’s resources being provided to support someone with a spinal cord injury for the rest of their life, it is surprising to discover that very little is being done to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. If we in Australia were able to develop an effective treatment for these types of injuries, the resources needed would be significantly less and the benefit to individuals, families and communities would be priceless. But for a treatment to be developed, funding is needed for research.

In the second that someone sustains a spinal cord injury, their life is changed forever. Usually they will never walk again and other actions that we take for granted—including writing, hugging and picking something up—are either incredibly difficult or impossible. Some people lose the ability to control their bowel and bladder functions, an indignity that very few of us could imagine. Someone who wants to see dignity returned to those living with a spinal cord injury is Neil Sachse, the Chief Executive Officer of the Neil Sachse Foundation. In October this year, I had the privilege of meeting Neil—and his wife Janene—to discuss the foundation and its goals. It was a pleasure to speak with someone who has inspired much hope in people who, like him, have sustained a spinal cord injury. In Neil’s case that happened in 1975. In that year Neil, a South Australian, began playing football for Footscray in the Victorian Football League. As many, Aussie Rules fans in particular, would know, during his second game with Footscray Neil was injured in an accidental collision. When speaking of the collision on a television program in May this year, Neil said:

… I just couldn’t move. So I didn’t know what was happening, so I got picked up and I said “I just can’t move. I can’t move”. So he just let me go and during the course while waiting to—

go to—

the ambulance I suggested they should take off my football boots and they said they did that a long time ago. So I thought I might be in a bit more trouble than I think I am.

Neil returned home from hospital to his wife and two young children as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. He worked as a fundraiser for Bedford Industries, then in 1994, having seen that little was being done to find a cure for spinal cord injury, he started the Neil Sachse Foundation. For so long it had simply been accepted that those who sustained a spinal cord injury would never be able to walk again. The bravery that Neil showed by refusing to accept this fate for people with a spinal cord injury now and in the future is truly remarkable, and the foundation has already begun to have considerable success.

The foundation has spent $1.5 million on research using Schwann cell treatment, a treatment that involves harvesting a person’s own cells. Wanting to prove that it could be used to encourage nerve fibres to grow past the site of injury and return some function, clinical trials were attempted by medical researchers. Unfortunately, these trials were initially unsuccessful as there was not enough funding to develop a suitable injection system. While the project did not receive adequate funding in Australia, an injection system has been funded in the United States, at the Miami Project, and is likely to be available in 2010.

Unfortunately, Australia has fallen behind in this area of medical research as governments have failed to provide funding to spinal cord injury research. A number of university researchers have gone overseas for employment opportunities, taking their valuable knowledge and expertise with them. Several countries have established spinal injury centres which provide specialist treatment to people soon after they have sustained a spinal cord injury. None of these centres exist in Australia, but after considerable research is undertaken this could be changed with the wherewithal and with the will. With the support of the University of Adelaide, the Neil Sachse Foundation aims to develop a research centre with a focus on spinal cord injury research. The centre would work collaboratively with groups nationally and internationally, with the common goal of finding a cure. This research centre could be the difference between a wheelchair and walking for 9,000 Australians.

It is frightening to think that anyone of us could sustain a spinal cord injury at any time and, unless a cure were found, we would never be able to make a full or even a partial recovery. I would like to conclude by thanking Neil—and Janene—for coming all the way up to Canberra, in a wheelchair on an aeroplane, to speak with me and a number of my colleagues about this very important issue. He and Janene did it on behalf of people other than themselves, in particular young people who continue to sustain spinal cord injuries particularly in car accidents and workplace accidents. The strength and determination of Neil and Janene in pursuing this quest for a cure are admirable and should be acknowledged by the Senate.