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By Cathy Robinson (CSIRO), Paul De Barro (CSIRO), David Hansen (CSIRO) and Andy Sheppard (CSIRO) Cathy Robinson (CSIRO), Paul De Barro (CSIRO), David Hansen (CSIRO) and Andy Sheppard (CSIRO) Cathy Robinson (CSIRO), Paul De Barro (CSIRO), David Hansen (CSIRO) and Andy Sheppard (CSIRO) 16 June 2016 4 min read

Northern Australia is already home to 12 million cattle. Biosecurity is critical for animal, human and economic health.

Unlocking northern Australia’s development potential opens the door for new trade, innovation and growth that will not only benefit the region, but also the national interest. However, unless we are careful, it will also pave the way for pests and disease, posing a serious threat to agriculture, the environment and, potentially, human health.

Successful management of these threats will result in healthy environments and communities, as well as a healthy bottom line. Both new and existing primary industries will maintain their productivity, and our export market will reap the benefits of a clean bill of health.

Effective management of this development relies on good surveillance of pests and diseases. Early detection of risks to Australia’s economy and population allows for their effective management.

In a vast country like Australia, and with potential risk pathways across our extensive northern coastlines, it is not feasible for surveillance to be effectively covered by government alone. To be cost-effective, biosecurity and health risk surveillance and reporting needs to be spread across government, industry and community. Knowledge provided by technology and people-based expertise will strengthen a comprehensive risk assessment of diseases associated with northern Australia’s development.

A total system health approach

Recognising that connections between health and biosecurity are critical to the management of risks to the economy, environment and community from pests and diseases entering, emerging, establishing or spreading, CSIRO is leading a ‘total system health’ approach to northern Australian development.

‘Total system health’ is an emerging science field which applies a systems-based analysis of the social, political, cultural and ecological causes of health and disease problems.<1> There is a growing market opportunity to apply this approach to address and more effectively tackle global health challenges, be they plant, animal or human.

A systems approach is critical to understand the key drivers that maintain disease prevalence, and to identify points in the system where interventions are most likely to have impact and be cost-effective. Key to this effort is to work with northern communities, industries and government agencies, and including the health system, to optimise social engagement and technological application in the north.

Managing human health and biosecurity risk

Enabling northern development through effective biosecurity and health risk assessment requires ‘made in the north’ surveillance systems that recognise social and behavioural characteristics of the key stakeholders involved: what information systems they prefer, how they operate and what motivates them to engage. For this to work, there are a number of institutional and social factors to consider.

Community engagement

The first issue is to develop trusted biosecurity and public health surveillance systems that can effectively make use of knowledge from a range of sources.

Having a knowledge base shared between community, government, and industry, and commitment to defined biosecurity responsibilities, is critical in detecting biosecurity threats. Using that information to monitor human disease and improve public health is also possible.

CSIRO has developed a range of risk surveillance technologies and frameworks that can help landholders, communities and people develop and access quality evidence to implement different biosecurity and health management strategies. Key to this effort is to find ways to build people’s trust and offer effective contribution to surveillance and response systems.

Two four-wheel drive vehicles parked by a roadside under trees
Travelling across the lower Fitzroy catchment. CSIRO is working with landholders and communities in the north to establish biosecurity and health surveillance systems.

Understanding behaviours

The second challenge is to better understand what motivates people to participate in surveillance activities.

CSIRO researchers have started to collect baseline data on attitudes and behaviours that have influence on biosecurity outcomes in northern Australian contexts, including behaviours that impact on biosecurity, yet are not driven directly by it.

For example, CSIRO is working to develop a ‘roadmap’ that can be used to enhance and implement a grower-based surveillance system. This requires an understanding of social and behavioural characteristics of the key stakeholders and producer groups involved in plant production relevant for biosecurity surveillance; what information systems they prefer, how they operate and what motivates them to engage. Similarly, the primary health networks around Australia are working to understand the determinants of health and human diseases.

Building a business case

The final challenge is to develop a business case to support a more broadly based surveillance model that takes a total system health approach.

With the balance of responsibility for managing specific biosecurity and health risks moving toward individuals – including stakeholders who are part of Indigenous, agricultural and mining communities – the incentives for surveillance have also changed. However, the value proposition for the wider community has never been comprehensively analysed, communicated, or debated. CSIRO is leading the economic analysis of the benefits of managing for biosecurity risk, including surveillance activities in northern Australia.

Better outcomes for northern Australian development

Northern Australia is rapidly serving as a critical bridge for the national effort to build innovative and sustainable development with global partners. Yet the region also serves as a bridge for exotic pests and disease that pose significant risks to the agricultural, environmental and human assets of our nation.

In addition, the north generally has worse health outcomes than metropolitan Australia. Building strong biosecurity and health surveillance can ensure infrastructure and natural resource management systems designed to drive development can sustain beyond the immediate term. In this context, health and biosecurity should be seen as an enabler of development, not merely a collection of risks.

CSIRO’s efforts to develop a total system approach to risk assessment can help inform smarter surveillance systems for northern development that will not only lead to good biosecurity and health outcomes for the region but also form a critical ingredient to sustaining Australia’s healthy population and economy.

<1> Butler, CD, Dixon, J & Capon, AG (2015) Health of People, Places and Planet. Reflections based on Tony McMichael’s four decades of contribution to epidemiological understanding. ANU Press, Canberra

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