Wednesday 18 February 2009

Dengue, our sleeping bushfire - Part 1

It's difficult to know where to start on this one.

I come across many stories I like to share. Some just for the heck of it. Some that enrage you. This is one such story.

This tale is up there with Syd Walker's epic The Death Throes of Mareeba Shire story, when he exposed serious conflicts of the Mareeba Mayor's final days in office last year, leaving a dark grim cloud over Borzi's tenure.

We all know know that this Wet season's Dengue outbreak in Cairns, is one of the worst for a long number of years. I, like many, have been somewhat lapse at preventive measures, although have always emptied gathered water in my yard, and religiously (not in a Catholic way) lit citronella and coils to ward off the pesky biting menaces.

Not until we interact closely with someone who's been infected, do we often genuinely take notice. We can see numerous reports about infections and how the virus is spreading, yet in an era of mass media, it seems far away, or someone else's problem.

So let me tell you my mozzie story, and it has plenty of bite.

I wrote the cover story in this month's Cairns Bulletin. It was all about Yorkeys resident, Sasha McGrath. I wanted to write a human interest piece about the Dengue outbreak and allow someone who'd been infected, to tell everyone how it felt and what the symptoms were. All we were hearing before this was the same old stuff about emptying water containers, and the numbers were being pumped out over the radio and in the paper. We may have been becoming immune to it somewhat?

I met Sasha through her neighbours, Janine Aitken and her partner, Marty. He told me his experience, that made me discover a pattern of complacency, lack of co-ordination, confusion and poor appropriate response from both the Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Health's Tropical Population Health Services, in the early days of the Dengue mosquito outbreak - a crucial time for local authorities to act.

On Friday December 5th last year, four days after the first Dengue notification in Cairns, Marty came across something that shocked him.

He was checking out a vacant North Cairns property in Gatton Street, that his Perth friends were moving into shortly.

"I wandered around the rear of the house and saw one of those old outdoor concrete washtubs. It was full of stagnate water with hundreds of wrigglers - breeding mozzie larvae," Marty said. "These tubs are really heavy, so I couldn't move or empty it by myself, but know something had to be done urgently."

On the way back to his workplace, he dropped into Cairns Regional Council's Spence Street office, to report his gruesome discovery, and get some action from the Environmental Health team. This group is headed by Council's Senior Environmental Health Officer, Gilbert Farrow.

Marty knew this was important to report and be dealt with promptly as he'd heard about the initial Dengue infections being reported in the first week of December. We now knows that these early notifications were coming from North Cairns, and could most probably be traced to the vicinity of this property in Gatton Street.

This is not the first year that Council has teamed up with the local Health authority to combat Dengue, but there appears serious flaws in the system.

Upon arriving at Council's 'customer service area', Marty filled in the form to record what he wanted done, however before he left, he asked to see the head of the Dengue Response Unit. Gill Farrow came down hand engaged in a nervous and what appeared, distracted four minute conversation with Marty.

"He wasn't interested, nor was he paying much attention to what I was saying," Marty recalls. "I told him that someone should go down there straight away and deal with the situation. He looked at his watch and really wasn't taking in the severity of what I was telling him."

The conversation ended after Marty offered his services for surveillance work, as his current work may be coming to a end. "He asked me what qualifications I had, and that didn't seem to please him when I shared my background in bio security issues and previous work."

Frustrated, Marty left Council, armed with his 'Customer Complaint' number, hoping that something would be done about the mozzie breeding party in Gatton Street.

Two and a half weeks went by and one morning in late December, Marty got a telephone call. "Hi, is that Martin? We're at that property in North Cairns. We're attending to that mozzie problem in the washtub," the field officer exclaimed. "That was over two weeks ago," Marty said.

The offending wash tub has since been planted with tomatoes by the new tenants.

It's clear that in the first three weeks of December, a slow response by Cairns Regional Council, in the early days of the Dengue outbreak, has caused this nasty disease to spread faster than anyone expected.

It is so very easy to prevent and reduce breeding sites. We now know, that just under a third of all reported Dengue infections originated from North Cairns, around 100.

Last Wednesday, I sought answers from Council about this particular case, and why it wasn't dealt with more swiftly. Council's Environmental Assessment Manager, Laurie Phipps, was asking to investigate. He looked into the complaint and questioned his Dengue team leader, Gilbert Farrow.

However, Farrow now says that no conversation took place at all with the original complainant on Friday 5th December.

It appears that on last Friday, not knowing what had been done, at the Gatton Street address, Phipps ordered someone to go back and "make sure it was done."

Marty received another telephone call on Friday afternoon. "Hello Martin. We're at this address in North Cairns, dealing with your complaint. We can't seem to see where you were talking about?" the Council officer said. Marty explained that this was reported on the 5th December, and had been dealt with, albeit late, in late December.

"There was a pause on the phone, he didn't acknowledge what I'd said," Marty says. "Well we want to make sure it's done," the Council inspector said as the phone call was concluded.

"This highlights the lack of coordination and systems in place," Marty says.

Why would they not know that this site had been cleared, or was someone covering their backs soon after a Councillor started asking questions about a specific complaint that wasn't dealt with appropriately at the time?

It's unforgivable that this Council can put up rates, donate $150,000 in 'our' budget for some horse race, yet fail to act with promptness after clear information was provided about a potentially deadly virus breeding ground.

On Friday morning, Council's Laurie Phipps telephoned Marty, but gave him no assurance that his compliant had been dealt with properly. "He said they get lot's of complaints to deal with and had only so much resources," Marty said. This was in the first few days of the outbreak and there were hardly any staff assigned to trawling the streets. It would have been a quick response that could well have alleviated the breeding of hundreds of deadly Dengue mosquito in North Cairns.

We can now say that with around 100 confirmed cases of Dengue infections in North Cairns, that this was our Ground Zero. As the first reports came in on December 1, Council along with Tropical Population Heath, should have reacting swiftly on any notification that came to them. It's now obvious that they didn't.

I know many residents have asked Council and Queensland Health to visit the old abandoned Herries Hospital, left vacant in McLeod Street. "It's an awful breeding site for mozzies," a caller told me, who wished to remain anonymous. "They [Queensland Health] gave me the run around, and said call Council. Council said they couldn't do anything because they don't have authority to go on the property." Residents seem to get angry when no one will act or take control of a specific complaint.

Queensland Health's Tropical Population Service manage the Dengue Action Response Unit - aptly named DART. They work with Council's Environmental Health unit, and give them direction and daily updates of the Dengue spread.

Whilst residents need to take responsibility, and preventative action is relativity simple, we expect a local authority to support and react appropriately when asked.

It's clear that this case, and at least three others that I've uncovered when Council and/or the Tropical Health Unit was advised, mirror each other. A lack of response not only frustrated the complainant, but probably contributed to the Dengue mosquito breeding and infecting more residents.

You can also lodge a complaint or a request for service to Council via the online form, however this is not working properly. You should be provided with a receipt number, and this does not always happen. A number of people who have spoken to me, say their complaint is often never followed through, or they never hear anything back.

I don't doubt for a minute, that those officers on the ground, visiting hundreds of properties, are doing a tremendous job. However the system that supports and directs them, appears to be falling down.

There is more to this story, and I'll explore this in Part 2. I will show that the relationship between Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Health's Tropical Population Health unit is far from co-ordinated nor effective.


Unknown said...

I have only had positive dealings with Laurie Phipp's team so far. For example, I had a resident contact me saying that the tyre dealership on their street had heaps of tyres full of water and that when the resident had complained to them about dengue, the tyre dealership wasn't interested. I then put in a complaint through the Council system and the very next afternoon I had an email from a resident saying that he had seen Council officers at the site attending to the issue. So there is some fantastic work being done by the Council team.

Anonymous said...

The council "complaint" system has been erratic and irrational for years. Neighbourhoods repeatedly lodge complaints about issues like footpaths blocked with cars, boats and other items forcing pedestrians into the street. How about the dozen or so locations where cars are parked "for sale" along the roadsides, and nothing is done? Buildings covered with graffiti. Bus stops that offer zero protection, but still have the advertising changed twice monthly.

Peter Tabulo's staff routinely provides "glowing" statistics to council (in their committee reports this week, for example) that show how many complaints have been lodged and "closed". It's all council-chambers hype. They enforce what THEY want, and ignore other issues without any action. It surprises me not at all to find out that a complaint of a mozzie breeding site was "deprioritised" by ignorant council staff.

Another good reason to get rid of Peter Tabulo, the key manager responsible for so many stuffed up operations.

Anonymous said...

Well, I lodged a CRM about a potential breeding site and never even got a receipt number, which I suppose means that I never lodged one.

Kirsten, I am sure CRC is doing a fantastic job in some areas, but you must admit that there are also some gaping holes in the co-ordination between CRC and the Tropical Health team. Maybe you won't/can't admit it, either way they exist.

Given dengue has a propensity to spread from house to house along streets (like happened in Cairns North), surely this outbreak could have been nipped in the bud quite early, or atleast the numbers of victims reduced somewhat?!?

Unknown said...

In response to Hieronymus Bosch, I was merely commenting on my own personal experience with officers. I am not saying that everything is perfect.

The problem with trying to control dengue is that you can have 15 houses in a street all doing the right thing and 'dengue proofing' their property, and 1 'rouge' property could be breeding dengue and infecting all of those people doing the right thing.

There have been reports coming through from our Council officers that they have cleaned up properties only to go back the next week and find it in the same state.

Previous outbreaks in the region, including one in Port Douglas, have recorded higher numbers of infections than we currently have in this outbreak, so it can be quite hard to 'nip it in the bud'.

Anonymous said...

You have such a way with the "Dengue Team". Should everyone who has had issues contact you to get the team to act responsively and responsibly? What is your contact email, as it seems most others have a problem conveying the urgency for action, but you seem to be able to get things happening immediately.
You have given "The Team" their pat on the back, now maybe you could work with them to overcome the shortcomings in their responses.

Anonymous said...

NotChaser, it's

I'm sure she'll oblige ;-)

Anonymous said...

I've had some great responses over time from the Council Complaints Line (with receipt numbers) & some duds. I rang & asked for a large spoon drain in our street to be cleaned back in October (I think) & it was done within days - sparklearkleing, too. Same with some coconuts they missed denutting. However, missing street-side markers which had been destroyed, are still unrepaired. Win some, lose some.
However, Council response to Dengue has been less than impressive. If Ms. Val had some guts, those health officers responsible should be fired, or demoted from their (undoubtedly) well-paid positions. But, the veritable pigs might be flying by then.
I think a lot of the problem with Dengue this year (& I've been here 12 years now & we've never had such a huge outbreak), is that in the last couple of years, we've had 15,000 (at least) new permanent residents setting up house in Cairns & environs. It's a huge leap from living Down South to Cairns - [I know ,I'm ex-Victorian - it took me a few huge leaps, thankfully with the help of some old-time residents - to settle in].
I reckon it would be useful if Council (or someone) could produce a welcome pamphlet about living in the tropics, & the attendant problems & how to navigate them (eg. stingers, leptospirosis, mould, cane toads etc etc). Also, such a pamphlet could be distributed to all real estate agents, with a mandate to provide a copy to all new buyers & renters. A copy could go out with the next rates, to bring all up to date.
Just as an aside, when I was newly resident, I found a large cane toad happily resting at the bottom of the spa bath. Having heard of all the terrors of these creatures I rang my old-chum friend Cathy, at Machans. "Cath, help, what do I do, how do I move it?", I said. Cath's reply: "Put on gardening gloves, & don't let it spit in your eye".
Welcome To Cairns, indeed.

Unknown said...

In response to NottheChaser, I am happy for you or anyone else to contact me if you have a particular issue. My email is and my mobile is 0407 659 650.

Lillian at Yorkeys, under the Local Government Act, the Mayor and Councillors are not allowed any say in the hiring or firing of staff. All staff matters are solely the responsibility of the CEO and General Managers, so the sacking or otherwise of the health officers has nothing to do with Val.

The education of residents about dengue fever is actually more of a Queensland Health responsibility than a Council one. However I am aware (having received one recently myself) that a 'welcome pack' is given to all first time ratepayers, and I see no reason why a dengue information brochure couldn't be added to the pack.

Anonymous said...

Kirsten - thanks for your info. The point about sacking or demoting officers is that: if they're not doing their job properly, adequately, or with due care, then they should be got rid of. Sounds tough, but most people are employed on the basis that they DO their jobs - not faff about looking like they are doing their jobs.
OK, I take your point about hiring & firing, however, I'm sure Val could at least give them a good carpeting, & if the health officers aren't doing their jobs properly, the matter should be referred to the CEO or appropriate Manager for action.
In terms of not responding quickly or adequately to the dengue problem, they have NOT been doing their jobs adequately.
Take the case of Council sending letters out to various streets where dengue has already been established. Here at Yorkeys, we got our first cases a week or so ago - however, one would think that it would be a good idea to send letters to the whole suburb - not only the one or two streets where dengue has occurred. One would assume that people from non-affected streets visit friends in affected streets, or maybe walk along those streets. It's ludicrous.
And as far as passing the buck to Queensland Health - OK, I'm not sure what their role in the whole thing is, or should be, but Council is the first port of call for local information, rubbish collection & so on. If we have contamination in our sewerage system, is that a Cairns Water problem, or a Queensland Health problem. Do you see my point?
Nice to know Council sends out an information pack to new ratepayers, but that doesn't cover rental properties. That's why I suggested disseminating info via real estate agents.

Anonymous said...


It seems a shame that we waste money on councillors and council elections if the CEO and GMs make all the decisions, which a particular view that, and I could be wrong, they were all put in place by KB. Indeed, if it's not Val who's directing staff on policy, then who is? Allan Sn(Bl)ake?

I agree with you that QLD Health have struggled with any coherent response, but surely this outbreak would have received greater attention from CRC if KB was in power!

Grow some ovaries Val!!!

Anonymous said...

Actually, here's a thought. If the CEO and GMs were sacked, we could use that money to pay for the green/hard waste pick up they were talking about.