TCHHS launches new Public Health Unit

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TCHHS Public Health Unit staff – from left – Dr Allison Hempenstall, Jared Noah, Health Minister Shannon Fentiman, Melissa Sprague and Rotona Martin.


  • Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service has launched its own public health unit
  • The unit will provide targeted community responses to serious diseases impacting Cape York, the Torres Strait and the Northern Peninsula Area
  • The region is affected by a range of communicable diseases rarely seen in mainstream Australia

A new Public Health Unit has been set up to focus directly on treating and preventing serious diseases in Cape York, the Torres Strait, and the Northern Peninsula Area.

The Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service launched the new unit earlier this year and it is already seeing great results, with targeted community responses to malaria, diphtheria, tuberculosis (TB), COVID-19 and influenza within the first few months.

The team is led by an Operations Manager with support from a Public Health Medical Officer and includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Health Practitioners, tuberculosis staff specialists and nurses, public health nurses and public health officers.

Torres and Cape HHS Executive Director of Medical Services Dr Marlow Coates said the communities within the region were affected by a range of communicable diseases rarely seen in mainstream Australia such as melioidosis, diphtheria, tuberculosis, malaria, Ross River virus and scrub tick typhus.

There is also a high burden of Group A Streptococcus infection that can lead to acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, and acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis that affects the kidneys.

Dr Coates said in the past three years there had also been outbreaks of shigella, salmonella, influenza, and COVID-19 in the region.

“More than two thirds of our residents identify as Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander peoples who suffer a higher incidence of chronic disease including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease,” he said.

“This new unit allows us to partner with local stakeholders to respond to outbreaks very quickly and in a culturally appropriate manner, with over half of all positions in the unit being identified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander roles.

“The unit proved highly effective in July when it partnered with primary health care teams and local leaders to respond to the first cases of malaria in the Torres Strait in 10 years.

“We are also dedicated to disease prevention and are working with the communities, including local schools, to improve education around how residents can better protect themselves.”

Since the beginning of the year up until 17 September, the health service has recorded the following case numbers for selected notifiable conditions:

  • 907 influenza
  • 290 COVID-19
  • 117 Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
  • 29 varicella (21 shingles and 8 chickenpox)
  • 25 rheumatic heart disease
  • 22 acute rheumatic fever
  • 7 melioidosis
  • 7 pneumococcal disease
  • 5 malaria
  • 4 hepatitis B
  • 2 tuberculosis

The number of influenza cases is more than three times higher than the annual average, with a high rate of this seasonal infection being seen across all Australian communities.

The new unit’s staff are based throughout the region in Thursday Island, Cairns, Weipa, Bamaga, Badu Island, Hope Vale, and Moa Island.

Public health responses in the Torres, Cape and NPA were previously led by the Cairns-based Tropical Public Health Service which is providing ongoing support to the newly established unit and will have an ongoing collaboration with the Torres and Cape Public Health Unit to strengthen both units’ capacity.

Torres and Cape HHS Acting Chief Executive Nick Steele said it was exciting to provide a service on the ground in communities.

“During COVID-19 our health service took steps to strengthen our ability to respond to public health matters and we are now in a position to make this a permanent service,” he said.

“We are committed to improving health outcomes in our region and responding to the needs of our communities.

“We thank TPHS for their ongoing support and collaboration as we continue our efforts to bring health care closer to home.”