• "It’s been classified as Ebola with wings, so that’s how vulnerable the rest of the country is": Mayor Fred Gela. (The Point)Source: The Point
Sitting off the top of Queensland, the Torres Strait is often out of sight and out of mind, says the region’s mayor, but adds communities are under threat of climate change and an Ebola outbreak waiting to happen.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
5 May 2016 - 7:19 PM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 11:07 AM

In the wake of the federal budget, and the lead up to a federal election, Torres Strait Island Regional Council Mayor Fred Gela paid a visit to Canberra to remind politicians about key issues affecting his communities.

Mr Gela has backed previous claims by medical experts that a tuberculosis (TB) epidemic in Papua New Guinea is an “Ebola outbreak waiting to happen”.

One of the world's most infectious diseases, drug-resistant TB has reached crisis levels in Papua New Guinea - only a “10-minute tinny ride” from the Torres Strait.

“It’s been classified as Ebola with wings, so that’s how vulnerable the rest of the country is,” he told 'The Point'.

“We're the only area that shares an international border with Papua New Guinea. It's only a 10-minute tinny ride to the border and there's no passport or photo identification or VISA - it's a free for all."

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He says that while he’s noted the 2016-2017 injected $3 million over a 3 year period to deal with Zika virus in terms of targeting mosquito-borne disease, “unfortunately there hasn't been any mention of any significant investment in terms of dealing with the multi-drug [resistant] or super-strength TB”, which he says is an “epidemic proportion at this point in time at New Guinea.”

There have been six notified cases of TB in the Torres Strait region this year, four of which were PNG residents diagnosed in the Torres Strait “protected zone”.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young says the state has “very robust systems” to control and manage TB in the Torres Strait region.

“For all new diagnoses of TB in Queensland, contact tracing is undertaken to identify people in contact with the new case and to test them for TB depending on their level of contact with the case,” she said in a statement to NITV News.

“The risk to the general public in Queensland of developing any kind of TB is very low, with around 3.9 cases of TB diagnosed per 100,000 people each year.

“This is lower than the current rate for Australia as a whole of around 5.3 cases per 100,000.”

The Queensland Government last year allocated $1.1 million to transfer control of TB services in the Torres Strait region from Cairns to the local hospital, establishing a TB control Unit on Thursday Island.

Climate change could see First Australians become refugees in their own country

Communities in the Torres Strait put a human face to the climate change threat.

Mr Gela says six communities are currently struggling to cope with inundation and coastal erosion.

“We very much could have our First Australians, being Torres Strait Islanders up in the Straits, being the first Australian refugees as a result of climate change,” he says.

The mayor says the region has previously received $26.2 million dollars from state and the Commonwealth to fund beach replenishment and construct sea walls, but much more investment is needed.

“That’s only enough to do one community when you look at it realistically,” he says.

“We’re in a situation as a council where if there’s any change leftover from $26.2 million, we’re going to decide the fate of a community.

“So I urge the Commonwealth, certainly in the lead-up to the election, that it needs to be on the platform, it needs to be on the radar.

“We’ve got Australians that are in dire need of assistance.”

Knocking on Turnbull’s door

Former prime minister Tony Abbott spent a week in far north Queensland and the Torres Strait late last year as part of his commitment to spend a week per year in remote Indigenous  communities.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told 'The Point' he wouldn’t continue the tradition.

But Mr Gela says he’ll still be appealing for a visit as the prime minister prepares to hit the campaign trail ahead of a likely July election.

“It was great to host Abbott during him time in office,” he says.

“It was a great opportunity for our constituents to be able to engage directly with the ministers and the Prime Minister – it’s like taking Canberra to where the doorway of Australia really is.

“Certainly we’ll still be knocking on Turnbull’s door, and only Lord knows what happens after the election.”