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Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Page: 2381


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (17:41): I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I am pleased to see that the government has responded to our interim report and I am pleased to see it has done it relatively quickly, although I acknowledge that there were only a few recommendations that needed to be responded to. Of course, the senator has already responded to the first recommendation, which was that the Community Affairs References Committee inquiry continue this matter into the 45th Parliament, and we have been doing just that. The inquiry was re-referred to us and, in fact, we held a hearing in Sydney last Wednesday. I think some of my colleagues will comment on that and I will come back to it too.

The committee's second recommendation was:

The committee recommends that the Department of Health further develop education and awareness strategies …

We heard a bit about that during the hearing last week—about the protection of tick bites and seeking medical attention. This is where I want to make a few comments. The recommendation was also to develop education and awareness strategies for the medical profession:

… about how to diagnose and treat classical Lyme disease acquired overseas and known tick-borne illnesses acquired in Australia.

The comments that have been made in the government's response are:

The Australian Guidelines for the diagnosis of overseas acquired Lyme disease/borreliosis are included on the NHMRC managed clinical portal. The guideline has also been published in Communicable Diseases Intelligence Vol 39 No. 4 December 2015.

The response then says:

The department will consider developing an additional guidance document focussing on treatment of classical Lyme disease in consultation with medical experts.

That is not exactly what we were asking for. We were asking about known tick-borne illnesses acquired in Australia. This goes to the crux of some of the issues that we discussed in the interim report, but we also received a lot more evidence about it during the week. Of course, I am not going to pre-empt anything that the committee may recommend when we do our report in the not too distant future, but it is quite clear from the evidence that there are significant issues related to tick-borne illnesses in Australia.

We heard of cutting-edge research—part of which is happening at Murdoch University in our home state, Mr Acting Deputy President Back—where they are finding so many pathogens related to ticks and they are talking about interaction of pathogens in relation to ticks and, I must say, other vectors as well. I am a little concerned with that response from the government and whether they are saying here that they are intending to include it, whether they mean that they are intending to include it but have not said it, or whether they have not actually got the point. Tick-borne illnesses are a very significant issue and there is absolutely no doubt that there are people who are very sick from these illnesses in this country. We received evidence again last week about the relationship between people becoming ill and being bitten by ticks. So it is absolutely essential that we start to look at and develop those guidelines that also relate to known tick-borne diseases acquired in Australia.

The other recommendation relates to the Chief Medical Officer:

The committee recommends that the Chief Medical Officer continue to consult with the medical and patient communities through mechanisms such as the Clinical Advisory Committee on Lyme Disease, and for the Department of Health to continue to facilitate meetings with medical and patient representatives.

There have been some concerns—in fact, a lot of concern—that that has not been happening. It is pleasing to see that the government has said it will renew its engagement with the clinical reference group. That is important, but I actually think that we need to see a really meaningful engagement on these issue because people are feeling stigmatised. They are obviously ill and they are feeling stigmatised and ignored. People talk of harassment and bullying and being told that their illness is all in their head when quite patently people are ill. It is not the way to treat people. People talk about being depressed with this illness. They are certainly depressed when they get told that they do not have an illness. I actually do think that there are some people that have associated depression because of the way they have been treated. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that people are ill.

There is a debate over classic Lyme and chronic Lyme. We are also having a discussion in the committee—we had it again last Wednesday with witnesses—about whether we should actually even abandon the name 'Lyme'. Some organisations already have. There is no doubt in my mind that people are sick and there is a relationship to tick bites and other vectors. We are starting to get some evidence around the illnesses that we have as well. This is what the research is coming out and showing: we have unique species or pathogens over here and unique bacteria that are associated with vectors, including ticks.

We will be reporting very soon on the inquiry and the further evidence that we have gathered on the issues that we had indicted in our report were the next steps for further investigation. We will be reporting on that in the near future. I do thank the government for their response, but I do urge them to go further on the matters that I have discussed. I am sure that I will be standing in this place, urging them very strongly to go further on the recommendations that we will be making in the next couple of weeks.