Illnesses Specific to Tasmania

The disease pattern in Tasmania has been similar to that for Australia generally. However, some diseases have occurred more frequently in Tasmania because of its geographical position and consequent climatic differences. Tasmanians suffer more respiratory illness, probably because these infections are generally more virulent in cooler weather and the state has longer and colder winters than further north. After about 1950 it also experienced a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), almost double that of the rest of the country. This appeared to be due to an interaction between the cooler weather, bedding and bedclothes used and sleeping position of the infant. The finding during the early 1990s that placing babies on their stomachs to sleep increased risk was followed by a successful campaign to encourage parents to place babies on their sides or backs. Since then, the death rate from SIDS has been similar to that elsewhere in Australia.

Multiple sclerosis still occurs at a high rate the prevalence being six times higher in Tasmania than in north Queensland. The reasons have not yet been identified.

Some inherited diseases have also occurred more frequently because they were brought to Tasmania by ancestors of those who live in the state. The most notable is Huntington's disease which results in damage to the central nervous system, particularly the brain. This is a serious disease which causes dementia and death in those who carry the gene. Research showed that the gene for this disease had been transmitted by one British immigrant in the nineteenth century.

Notably Tasmania has suffered a relatively high incidence of thyroid disease due to a deficiency of iodine in the soil. This is a result of leaching by glaciation during the ice age. The consequent low levels of iodine in food products in the state has led to many Tasmanians suffering from goitre and related iodine deficiency disorders. Interventions, commencing in the 1950s to supplement iodine intake, were able to dramatically reduce the incidence of iodine deficiency disorders, but with the changing nature of supplementation over time the potential for a re-emergence of these problems remains. (See also Flinders Island Spotted Fever.)

Terry Dwyer