North Coast hotbed for disease

THE North Coast has the State’s highest incidence of two nasty and potentially fatal diseases.

It has the most cases of pertussis (whooping cough) in NSW; and also shares top spot for the food poisoning infection, salmonella. It shares second place, after Broken Hill, for hepatitis C.

The situation with whooping cough is particularly alarming, according to the North Coast Area Health Service’s director of public health, Paul Corben, who puts it down to a low vaccination rate in places such as the Byron Shire.

“The North Coast has been the scene of a really large outbreak in the past two years,” he said. “Up to November 25, there were 1312 cases reported, compared with 131 in 2007.

“There are extraordinary differences between local communities. In Byron Shire, where there is a very low immunisation rate for children, the incidence of pertussis is many times that of Ballina Shire, right next door.”

Mr Corben said the reason salmonella featured so highly in statistics was simply environmental.

“The bug likes warm and humid places, so the further north you go, the greater the number of infections,” he said.

Children figured highly in the statistics because they were likely to put their dirty hands in their mouths, he said. Diarrhoea and vomiting could lead to dehydration, so it was important to keep fluids up. Hand washing is the most effective form of prevention.

Hepatitis C presents a more complex case.

The virus is spread mainly by the sharing of needles by drug users and the high incidence ‘partially reflects the population, where pockets of people follow an alternative lifestyle’, Mr Corben said.

“Plus, the North Coast is a pleasant place to live, and people with the disease may move here to enjoy a more easy-going, cheaper lifestyle.”

Mr Corben said the higher incidence could also be a result of reporting rates.

“People are becoming aware that we now have very effective treatment for some forms of the virus, and we have received a modest increase in funding, so some of the clinics are‘recruiting’ people for treatment.”

Across the State there has been a marked drop in the reporting of the disease, again for a variety of possible reasons.

“Australia is a world leader in the control of the spread of blood-borne viruses,” Mr Corben said.

“The introduction of needle and syringe services in the 1980s has had a big impact on such diseases in the intravenous drug user group.”

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