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Vigilance is vital

World-renowned epidemiologist, Professor Roger Morris PHOTO/FILE

Leading epidemiologist cautions public

Masterton is home to Professor Roger Morris, a world-renowned expert in the field of epidemiology – and his comment on the covid-19 situation is that, “New Zealand has pretty much done it right”.

For Professor Emeritus Roger Morris, it all began growing up in Australia when an interest in farming led to his winning a scholarship to study veterinary science.

Being mentored in his first job by the premier veterinary clinician of the 20h century, Douglas Blood, who wrote the veterinary bible, ‘Blood and Henderson’ – was a step towards his own stellar career in epidemiology.

This is the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

His illustrious 55-year career in the field of veterinary epidemiology, had him involved in the handling of at least 50 major disease outbreaks, in individual countries, and globally.

Originally a clinician, he graduated in 1966 from Sydney University and taught at the University of Melbourne for 11 years, then spent time in a senior role in the Australian Government before he was asked to become the Head of the Veterinary Clinical Department at the University of Minnesota in the United States, where he spent five years.

After accepting a position in New Zealand as Professor of Animal Health at Massey University in Palmerston North, he established the EpiCentre – a globally recognised research, consultancy and training centre in epidemiology, biosecurity, food safety and animal health.

Because of his international reputation, the university was able to secure $15 million in two contracts from the World Bank and the European Union, to train doctors, veterinarians and wildlife scientists across Asia from Afghanistan to Mongolia to work together in responding to and managing emerging diseases – in preparation for a disease such as covid-19 to arise.

He also contributed to investigating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with support from the World Bank.

Consulting internationally for world governments and major health organisations such as the World Health Organisation, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – he looked at how information can be used by countries to stop emerging diseases.

Professor Morris is also trained as an economist, which he links to his work as an epidemiologist, and he designs software information systems for analysing disease and evaluating the economic impacts such outbreaks can have on a country.

In 2001 he was asked by the British Government to support the control efforts for their very large foot and mouth disease epidemic, and his team did daily analysis and modelling to help guide decisions in London.

Similarly, he was also involved with the mad cow disease [BSE] outbreak in the UK, using his software to map the disease and finally help to eradicate it.

Although he officially retired in 2008, his expertise is still sought by many countries and he has been at the forefront of many efforts to control outbreaks, including chairing the technical group which advised the New Zealand government on control strategies for the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak.

His role in covid-19 has been mainly at the international level, where he has been advising World Bank on investment in preventing future emergence of viruses through wet markets, where covid-19 is thought to have arisen.

In New Zealand, he has mainly been helping inform national understanding through the media. Control of covid-19 in New Zealand has been a major success, because the right decisions were made quickly and enforced strongly, he said.

Even the problems that have arisen along the way have been less severe than in most epidemics, and sufficient resources are available to deal with any late difficulties that might arise.

In contrast, America and Brazil are at great risk of keeping the pandemic going much longer than would be the case if they had acted effectively.

“They have done almost everything wrong, and when that happens, their national epidemics become virtually unstoppable for an extended period,” he said.

“I also predicted some time ago that Australia would probably have a resurgence of the disease because they left gaps in their control, and that is exactly what has happened.”

He has been involved in control of several diseases in Wairarapa.

For 15 years from 1988, he led a major research programme based at Castlepoint on bovine TB and the role of possums and other wildlife in spreading the disease.

This substantially changed understanding of how the disease is spread, and the number of TB-infected cattle and deer herds in New Zealand has been reduced from more than 1700 in 1994 to under 100 now.

This contrasts with Britain, where the badger spreads the disease, and the problem has become more severe and widespread over the past 20 years, despite a very large investment in both research and control by the British government.

He said that “solving each new disease epidemic requires finding it early and doing careful detective work to understand how it is spreading then taking quick action to stop the spread. If everything goes right, the outbreak remains small and people say the threat was exaggerated.

“If everything goes badly, we have a global pandemic.”

New Zealand is “in a favourable position” in his estimation, but New Zealanders need to maintain vigilance to ensure there is no resurgence of community transmission due to people not adhering to quarantine requirements.

New Zealand is also well positioned to take advantage of trade and other opportunities which arise directly from its success with controlling covid-19, and we should be able to rebuild business activity with both China and Australia faster than most other countries.

Morris is hopeful that within two to three years, an effective vaccine might be possible and said there were at least 120 different approaches being explored, but there would not be an effective vaccine soon enough to change the course of the pandemic.

“I find this work intellectually stimulating and also rewarding in being able to contribute to the welfare of the human race”.

Massey awarded him their highest honour, the Massey Medal, for his outstanding contribution to epidemiology worldwide, and he has been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to veterinary science in 2003.

He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists and the American College of Epidemiology.

Having supervised more than 500 doctoral and master’s students and written more than 200 scientific papers, his contribution to the field of epidemiology is enormous, Wairarapa is fortunate to have him in its midst.

  • Tonight – [Wednesday, July 15] – Professor Roger Morris will give a talk at the New Zealand Institute for International Affairs at 8pm in The Seminar Room, Wairarapa Sports House, cnr Chapel and Jackson Sts, Masterton. All welcome – $5 door fee for visitors.

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