Dengue expert calls for free blood tests
TOURISTS suspected of carrying dengue fever should be given free or subsidised health tests to prevent outbreaks in North Queensland, a disease expert says.
Inbound travellers who have visited South-East Asia, Papua New Guinea or Pacific Islands have been identified as the source of most of the 30 dengue outbreaks recorded in the region over the past decade.
James Cook University Professor of Medicine John McBride said blood tests at private pathology laboratories cost tourists $150 or more, a deterrent particularly for backpackers on shoestring budgets.
"The costs are very high so travellers are avoiding having tests," he said.
"Some seek treatment and get referrals for blood tests but doctors don't know what they do when they walk out the door.
"For an Australian citizen, that's mostly covered by Medicare but for a traveller, they'll think: 'Don't worry, I'll just sweat it out.'
"That's fine for the traveller but if they actually do have dengue and don't get tested, it jeopardises the whole city."
The incubation period for dengue fever is about five days; meaning a tourist infected in hot spots such as Bali, Cambodia or Indo-China could experience symptoms well after arriving in Cairns.
Prof McBride will next year oversee a research project investigating the impact of offering free tests for travellers suspected of having tropical diseases such as dengue or malaria and present the findings to governments.
He has already spoken with politicians and health officials about the idea and said the study would measure the costs and benefits. Protecting the health of North Queenslanders was the primary focus and dengue was a disease that could spread exponentially if left undetected, Prof McBride said.
"I don't know if we're shooting ourselves in the foot by not offering free tests," he said.
"Travellers are always the means by which dengue comes into Cairns.
"Someone might come back from Indonesia infected. A neighbour gets it and it spreads.
"Once we know a traveller has dengue, then we can respond and prevent an outbreak."
Federal Senator Jan McLucas said she would be interested to hear Prof McBride's proposal.
"I would work with the university and the community broadly to ensure North Queensland's exposure to mosquito-borne diseases is minimised as much as possible," Senator McLucas said.
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