All I want for Christmas is an Australian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

Wrapped Christmas presents under a tree. Credit: Mike Fleming/Flickr.

Terry Slevin, PHAA CEO

Mariah Carey’s classic Christmas hit is a commercial radio and shopping centre staple every December. If I could tweak her lyrics, I’d change them to emphasise how essential a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention could be for Australia, and our near neighbours.

The wariness many Australians have to meeting in person this Christmas has been intensified by the recent arrival of the Omicron variation of the COVID-19 virus. This new strain – coupled with the willingness of some Australian governments to stress personal responsibility rather than proven public health measures – shows there’s a role for a national infectious disease control centre.

Indeed, as PHAA President, Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, explained on Twitter on 20 December, government positions across Australia concerning the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were at odds with sensible risk management, reducing the past two years of sensible public health measures. The NSW Government, in particular, had simplified public health to “personal responsibility”, and mainstreamed public health advice.

I argue it’s one thing for a Premier or Health Minister to ignore their Chief Health Officer. It’s another matter if politicians ignore both the health advice, and also an independent national health authority.

Professor Weeramanthri, and I outlined in our editorial in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in September 2021, debate around a Centre for Disease Control is more than 30 years old.

We in the PHAA, and the wider public health profession, have long argued that such a centre be the “hub” in a “hub and spoke” model, legislated to operate independently from the Commonwealth Department of Health.

The centre could play a greater role increasing consistency of approach and systems across states, boost the development, training, and future capacity of public health expertise in Australia and the region, and raise confidence in Australia’s public health capability.

“Its focus would be on key technical functions such as national coordination of disease surveillance, leadership in immunisation and other programs, management of communicable disease outbreaks, and regional and international engagement,” our ANZJPH article says.

This national centre could have assisted during the current pandemic to make more visible the broader governance and decision-making between the states, territories and Commonwealth.

“It deserves more consideration and scrutiny,” our article continues. “There has been a close and contested line between health experts (inside or outside government) and political decision makers. An [Australian Centre for Disease Control] might provide an appropriate institutional middle ground as a source of trusted expert advice.”

Establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the seven areas of focus for the PHAA’s 2022 Federal Election campaign.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that we cannot go back to the way we did things before. National surveillance and response systems were not strong or fast enough, or consistent enough to halt or control transmission.

We need a national centre, and that’s what we’ll be advocating for, both to Santa this week, and to the major parties in the new year in the lead up to the 2022 federal election.

If Mariah’s not your thing, sing along to my update on the ‘two front teeth’ Christmas classic:

All I want for Christmas is a CDC

A CDC…yes, a CDC

Gee, if I could only have a CDC

Then (maybe) I could wish you a Merry Christmas.


Image: Mike Fleming/Flickr.

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