Australia's measures to protect human health

This page contains details of measures taken by the Australian Government to protect the health of the Australian public from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

Page last updated: 23 February 2010

The Department of Health and Ageing continues to work closely with other Australian Government Departments and Agencies to minimise the potential risk to humans from BSE through contamination of food supplies, blood supplies, medicines and therapeutic devices.

Following the first cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1986, Australia acted swiftly to maintain the health of its cattle herds. Since the discovery of the human variant of BSE, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in 1996 and its apparent association with the consumption of certain tissues from cattle with BSE, a number of additional measures were required to ensure the protection of human health.

Ongoing reviews of scientific evidence and monitoring of local and global developments have been crucial in effective management of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) BSE and vCJD in Australia. The most recent analysis shows that the potential risk to human health from BSE through contamination of food supplies, blood supplies, medicines and therapeutic devices can be managed provided there are appropriate risk mitigation strategies in place.

Review of Scientific Evidence to Inform Australian Policy on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs)

Australia has changed its BSE food safety policy for imported beef and beef products, effective 1 March 2010, to allow the importation and/or sale of beef and beef products under agreed conditions from countries that have reported cases of BSE.

This change will introduce a level playing field as of 1 March 2010. All countries, including those that are currently eligible under the old policy, will have to undergo assessment and demonstrate they have in place controls necessary to ensure that beef and beef products exported to Australia meet Australia’s requirement that beef and beef products be produced from animals free of BSE.

Global status of the epidemics

The most recent epidemic, which continues to decline, occurred in 1992 in the UK. To date, no cases of BSE have been detected in Australian cattle.

As of September 2009, a total of 212 cases of vCJD have been notified worldwide:
- 166 definite and probable cases in the UK and Northern Ireland;
- 25 cases in France;
- 5 cases in Spain;
- 4 cases in Ireland;
- 3 in USA;
- 3 in The Netherlands;
- 2 in Portugal; and
- 1 each in Canada, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Almost all affected individuals had multiple-year exposures in the UK between 1980 and 1996 during the occurrence of a large UK outbreak of BSE among cattle. No cases of vCJD have been diagnosed in Australia.

Despite the encouraging decline in annual numbers of BSE and vCJD cases around the world, the serious consequences of vCJD means that Australia must remain vigilant to ensure that BSE does not become established in cattle herds and the risk of transmission of the BSE agent to humans is reduced.

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Australian measures to protect human health

One of the cornerstones of Australia's response to BSE/vCJD, has been the close cooperation and collaboration between various agencies within the Australian Government and other agencies. Australia has examined its policies and preparedness planning to enable appropriate management of potential future cases of BSE and vCJD.

The Department of Health and Ageing has developed a vCJD response plan to guide the national health response should one or more cases of vCJD occur in Australia.

Food safety

Australia has in place a system to ensure that all beef and beef products entering Australia are derived from animals free from BSE. This measure is administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service informed by advice from Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

For more information, visit Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service.

'Blood supply

The blood supply is protected through a decision by all Australian Health Ministers to defer blood donations from anyone who lived in Britain for a cumulative period of six months or more between 1980 and 1996 or who received a blood transfusion in Britain from 1980 onwards, irrespective of their length of stay. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service investigates any potential risk to the blood supply from a donor with suspect CJD. The National Blood Authority’s National Blood Supply Contingency Plan considers the risk of any significant threat to the blood supply, including due to contamination from vCJD.

Medicines and therapeutic devices

The Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA’s) role is to regulate and ensure the safety, efficacy and quality of therapeutic goods in Australia. The TGA monitors restrictions on the importation of biological materials that may contain TSEs used in the production of therapeutic goods and has an ongoing assessment process for new products to minimise the potential risk of exposure to TSEs.

Disease surveillance in humans

The Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) is the national body for the co-ordination of public health surveillance and outbreak management of communicable diseases. It includes representatives from all Australian State and Territory health authorities, observer members from other regional countries and non-government members with specialised expertise in communicable diseases.

In late 2003, the CDNA endorsed the addition of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) to the list of diseases to be notifiable nationally. Registration of CJD as a nationally notifiable disease will allow authorities to monitor cases of CJD in Australia.

Surveillance of CJD is performed by The Australian National CJD Registry, located within the Department of Pathology in the University of Melbourne. The Registry was established in 1995 and is charged with investigation of cases of CJD, past, present and future.

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Disease surveillance in animals

No cases of TSE have been detected in Australian farmed or wild animals. Australian governments and industries have implemented nationally coordinated measures through the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy Freedom Assurance Program (TSEFAP), to minimise the risk that Australian animals become infected with TSEs such as BSE in cattle and scrapie in sheep. TSEFAP has components covering surveillance, ruminant feeding restrictions and surveillance of imported animals. For further information on surveillance please see the Animal Health Australia website.

For more information, visit the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

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Australian response plans for vCJD

In light of the cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and vCJD identified in Europe, Australia has examined its own policies and preparedness planning to enable appropriate management of any potential future cases of BSE and vCJD, noting that there have been no cases to date in humans or cattle.

The Department of Health and Ageing's response planning includes the development of a range of plans to deal with the possibility of vCJD being detected in Australia. The first of these is the clinical response plan, which outlines how the health system will respond should a case of vCJD be diagnosed in Australia.

Role of Australian Government agencies

One of the cornerstones of Australia's response to BSE/vCJD, has been the close cooperation and collaboration of various agencies within the Australian Government and their counterparts in the States and Territories on these issues. These agencies include:

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is an independent bi-national organisation. FSANZ's role is to protect the health and safety of the people of Australia and New Zealand by maintaining a safe food supply. It identifies food that should not be sold in Australia due to an unacceptably high BSE related risk and identifies restrictions that need to be put in place on the importation of food containing beef and beef products from countries at risk.

Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) provides quarantine inspection services for the arrival of international passengers, cargo, mail, animals and plants or their products into Australia, and inspection and certification for a range of animal and plant products exported from Australia. Its role is to implement Government policies designed to keep Australia BSE free.

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is responsible for protecting and advancing Australia's national interests by contributing to international security, national economic and trade performance and global cooperation; maintaining consular and passport services to Australian citizens; projecting a positive and accurate image of Australia internationally; and enhancing public understanding of Australia's foreign and trade policy.

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The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is an Australian government authority responsible for the assessment and registration of pesticides and veterinary medicines and for their regulation up to and including the point of retail sale. APVMA’s role is to independently evaluate the safety and performance of chemical products intended for sale, making sure that the health and safety of people, animals and the environment are protected. This includes evaluation of TSE risks for products administered to animals.

Australian Health Protection Committee

In April 2006, AHMAC established the Australian Health Protection Committee (AHPC). The role of the AHPC is to provide policy and operational leadership in the national management of public health emergencies and to provide national strategic direction, coordination and advice on health protection issues associated with communicable disease (excluding chronic disease) threats and environmental threats to human health.

Since its establishment, AHPC has consolidated its role as a key source of advice to government on likely health threats and vulnerabilities and preparation and mitigation strategies.