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Superbug threats in New Zealand

Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery A Centre of Research Excellence hosted by The University of Auckland

17 November 2010

Superbug threats in New Zealand

Rheumatic fever and ESBLs, and the rapid spread of diseases via international travel emerged as some of the greatest infectious disease threats facing New Zealand at yesterday’s New Zealand Superbugs Symposium convened by the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery.

“The symposium brought together around 350 medical professionals and scientists to discuss the bacterial disease threats in this country and the holistic approaches needed to combat them – from low-tech solutions like good hospital hygiene through to high-tech solutions from science such as new diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines,” said Associate Professor Rod Dunbar, Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre.

“Scientists at the Maurice Wilkins Centre focus on discovering of new treatments and diagnostics for major human diseases and a large part of our work deals with infectious diseases. By identifying the infectious diseases that should be the priority for research we can make the best use of this world-class expertise.”

The importance of tackling infectious diseases was highlighted by epidemiologist Associate Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago who presented new data on their rising burden in New Zealand. “Until fairly recently the conventional wisdom was that infectious diseases were disappearing. In fact our research shows that over the last 20 years the burden of infectious disease in New Zealand has increased significantly. Infectious disease as a cause of hospitalisations rose from 18 to 26 percent in the period 1989 to 2008, which translates to 20,000 extra hospital admissions each year,” he said.

“There have also been increasing inequalities. Maori and Pacific people have around twice the chance of being hospitalised due to infectious diseases compared with people of ‘European or Other’ ethnicity and this reflects a significant rise over the last 20 years.”

Dr Sally Roberts, a clinical microbiologist and infectious disease physician at Auckland District Health Board, said that one of the greatest challenges facing clinicians is the rise of anti-microbial resistant organisms like ESBLs that are becoming a problem not only in hospitals but are spreading the community. Diseases caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, such as rheumatic fever, and the spread of antimicrobial-resistant organisms within healthcare settings were also major clinical concerns.

“It is valuable for clinicians to meet with a group of scientists doing the basic research that can help us to answer some of these questions and to allow future collaboration between the medical and scientific community. We don’t often meet in these forums to discuss problems in this manner and this day has been fantastic for that,” she said.

A panel discussion held at the conclusion of the symposium highlighted the importance of both basic preventive measures such as good hospital hygiene, and collaboration between scientists and the medical community to learn more about of infectious diseases and develop new treatments and diagnostics.

“The spread of antimicrobial organisms from one patient to another happens via the hands of healthcare workers in contact with colonised patients, and good hand hygiene practices are important to reduce this,” emphasised Dr Roberts.

Panellists urged national commitment to tackling rheumatic fever, bringing together clinical and scientific expertise to understand the reasons for its high prevalence in New Zealand, particularly in Māori and Pacific communities, and to develop better drugs and vaccines. They highlighted the need for research on ESBLs to understand their transmission and develop new ways of reducing their spread.

An update by Maurice Wilkins Centre Principal Investigator Professor Bill Denny on his work with the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development to create new drugs for tuberculosis, including a lead compound expected to enter clinical trials soon, was particularly welcomed by the panel. Also highlighted in the discussion was research presented by Dr Stephen Ritchie from The University of Auckland investigating the reasons for increased rates of Staphylococcus aureus in Māori and Pacific people, including the possible role of genetic differences in addition to socioeconomic factors.


The Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery is New Zealand’s Centre of Research Excellence for the discovery of new treatments and diagnostics for human disease. The Centre brings together leading biologists, chemists, and computer scientists to target serious diseases, focusing on infectious disease, cancer and diabetes. It includes researchers with world-class reputations for inventing new drugs against these diseases, several of which are in clinical trials.

The Centre is hosted by The University of Auckland and brings together researchers from six New Zealand Universities, three Crown Research Institutes and a private research institute: The University of Auckland, University of Otago, Victoria University, University of Waikato, University of Canterbury, Massey University, Industrial Research Limited, Plant & Food Research, AgResearch, and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.


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