Emerging Travel Risk: Australia’s mosquito-borne Ross River virus could become global epidemic

What is Ross River virus?

  • Most common mosquito-borne disease in Australia
  • Previously thought to be endemic to Australia and Papua New Guinea
  • Last breakout outside Australia/PNG was in 1979-1980 in American Samoa
  • Symptoms include swollen joints, fever/chills, rashes, debilitating pain
  • 3,552 people infected Australia-wide in 2016
  • Previously understood to sustain itself only through marsupials
University researchers warn that the virus now seems to be able to sustain itself outside marsupials.
Australia’s Ross River virus has the potential to become a global epidemic, similar to the Zika virus, researchers say.
It was previously thought that the mosquito-borne virus could only sustain itself among marsupials, which kept the disease endemic to Australia and Papua New Guinea.
But research fellow at the University of Adelaide Professor Philip Weinstein said he and his partners at the Australian National University (ANU) found the disease silently planting roots in the South Pacific.
“It’s really only in the last few years [it became apparent] when tourists returning to their home countries … were diagnosed with Ross River virus after travelling in the Pacific,” Professor Weinstein said.
“They’d never been to Australia or New Guinea. That’s when the little alarm bells started ringing that this was perhaps circulating outside Australia.”
Professor Weinstein said the new finding meant that even though there were no marsupials in the Pacific Islands, the virus was seemingly able to maintain itself there anyway.
He warned that if the virus could sustain itself in areas where there were no marsupials, “then it could sustain itself anywhere in the world”.
“That certainly means that it could be another global outbreak like Zika or Chikungunya a few years before that, another mosquito-borne virus that suddenly went global,” he said.
Professor Weinstein said all it could take was a “perfect storm” of a tourist carrying the virus, a set of animals who could harbour the virus, and the right conditions for mosquitos to bite those animals for an epidemic to take off.
In fact, he said, it was possible that was already happening.
“This has probably been chugging along quietly on different Pacific islands for a number of years, but because the symptoms are so general it’s not been identified as a Ross River Virus problem,” Professor Weinstein said.
In January alone 1,174 people were infected nationwide in Australia.
Source: ABC News reported 22 February 2017