Led by Professor Rebecca Guy at UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute, a team of researchers, clinicians and community and government partners have been funded to develop a national framework to scale up point-of-care testing for infectious diseases in rural and remote Aboriginal communities.
Announced on Sunday by the Minister for Health the Hon. Greg Hunt, the team, comprising over 20 organisations will receive $9,967,326 over six years from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).
“This significant grant from the federal government represents a paradigm shift for managing infectious diseases in remote communities, by bringing the power of diagnostic laboratories into a local community system,” says Prof. Guy, who is the Public Health Theme Director at the Kirby Institute. “It will allow us to improve clinical practice by better targeting treatment, and thereby reduce the burden of infectious diseases and their complications for Aboriginal communities in rural and remote Australia.”
Infectious disease rates are unacceptably high for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in rural and remote settings. Mr Robert Monaghan, national community engagement lead on the project and manager of Aboriginal health research at the Kirby Institute says that the timely testing that is critical for clinical management of infectious disease is currently not available for many Indigenous Australians in these locations.
“For many people the nearest laboratory able to conduct testing is located hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. This program will utilise point-of-care technology to provide laboratory services within communities, facilitating disease management,” says Mr Monaghan.
Point-of-care testing is a technology that allows a health worker, nurse or doctor to collect a sample from a patient and analyse it on site using a device called GeneXpert, with results available within one hour. If the result is positive, a patient can begin treatment immediately and if negative can avoid unnecessary treatments that have been offered “just in case” while waiting for the results.
Prof. Guy says that the project will build on over 10 years of successful partnerships between the Kirby Institute and Aboriginal communities on a range of other point-of-care projects.
“We have a network of nearly 100 molecular point-of-care testing platforms in rural and remote communities. These were initially established for testing for sexually transmissible infections and then expanded as an emergency response for COVID-19,” she says.
“The grant will allow for scale-up – to more communities and testing for more infectious diseases. Alongside STIs and COVID-19, the technology can diagnose Group A streptococcus, staphylococcus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, tuberculosis, human papillomavirus, chronic hepatitis C and chronic hepatitis B – all infections that disproportionately impact Aboriginal communities.
"This will be the first program internationally to take a fully integrated, multi-disease health systems approach to decentralised infectious disease point-of-care testing. We look forward to working in partnership to achieve better health for Aboriginal communities.”
The research will be governed by an Indigenous advisory committee chaired by Dawn Casey, Deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. The advisory committee will include members from across all states and territories and will ensure Indigenous ownership of the processes and outcomes of the research.