Typhoid cases on Christmas Island pose minimal risk

Two cases of typhoid at the Christmas Island detention centre last week sparked fears of an outbreak of the disease on the island.

The two Afghan asylum seekers, who arrived on separate boats, were hospitalised with typhoid fever. They have since been treated and have returned to the detention centre.

While the chances of the disease spreading outside the detention centre or to the mainland are very low, all flights from the island to the mainland were temporarily stopped to prevent a potential outbreak.

image - Typhoid cases on Christmas Island pose minimal risk

Everyone on board the boats with the two affected men will be tested for typhoid, as well as all customs, immigration and other staff that came into contact with the two boatloads of people.

Typhoid is a highly contagious, potentially deadly bacterial disease. It is transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with faeces from an infected person, and is most common in developing countries, where hand washing is less frequent and water is likely to be contaminated with sewage.

The disease, which can be treated with antibiotics, affects the intestines and causes symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea. Some people can harbour and spread typhoid bacteria without displaying symptoms.

Typhoid cases in Australia are uncommon but occur occasionally in returned travellers. Mary-Louise McLaws, a professor of epidemiology at the University of New South Wales, stresses that the risk of typhoid becoming endemic is Australia is very small.

“Our sanitation and chlorinated water supply protects us from carriers and patients with the disease. This is why we only see cases of the disease in people travelling from areas with poor sanitation,” said McLaws.


Typhoid fever fact sheet (NSW Health)


Information about the typhoid cases on Christmas Island


The incidence of different communicable diseases in Australia during 2008 and 2009 (Australian Bureau of Statistics)


Incidence of communicable diseases in asylum seekers compared with the Australian population