Every so often I get to the point where I feel I just need a break from Blogging and the like, to rest, to regroup, to recharge and to catch-up on work requirements – so that is what I am currently doing. I am physically exhausted at the moment and that often brings on more serious issues with my health (which I am beginning to sense), so the wiser course is to rest for a little – to just ease off for a bit, take the foot of the throttle, etc. So I am taking a break for a bit – I think I’m about 2, 3 or 4 days into it at the moment and when I return it will be a gradual return, not an all in and at it approach.
How long will the break be? That I’m not sure about – there are some pressing issues around my work at the moment, some medical appointments, etc – and these all over the next week or so – which also means the break will be less of a break and more of a short-term refocus I suppose. I don’t expect it to be more than 2 weeks, probably less.
We live in a world of violent challenges to the status quo, from Chile and Iraq to Hong Kong, Catalonia and the Extinction Rebellion. These protests are usually presented in the media simply as expressions of rage at “the system” and are eminently suitable for TV news coverage, where they flash across our screens in 15-second splashes of colour, smoke and sometimes blood.
How might we make sense of these upheavals? Are they revolutionary or just a series of spectacular eruptions of anger? And are they doomed to fail?
Key characteristics of a revolution
As an historian of the French Revolution of 1789-99, I often ponder the similarities between the five great revolutions of the modern world – the English Revolution (1649), American Revolution (1776), French Revolution (1789), Russian Revolution (1917) and Chinese Revolution (1949).
A key question today is whether the rebellions we are currently witnessing are also revolutionary.
A model of revolution drawn from the five great revolutions can tell us much about why they occur and take particular trajectories. The key characteristics are:
long-term causes and the popularity of a socio-political ideology at odds with the regime in power
short-term triggers of widespread protest
moments of violent confrontation the power-holders are unable to contain as sections of the armed forces defect to rebels
the consolidation of a broad and victorious alliance against the existing regime
a subsequent fracturing of the revolutionary alliance as competing factions vie for power
the re-establishment of a new order when a revolutionary leader succeeds in consolidating power.
Why today’s protests are not revolutionary
This model indicates the upheavals in our contemporary world are not revolutionary – or not yet.
The most likely to become revolutionary is in Iraq, where the regime has shown a willingness to kill its own citizens (more than 300 in October alone). This indicates that any concessions to demonstrators will inevitably be regarded as inadequate.
We do not know how the extraordinary rebellion in Hong Kong will end, but it may be very telling there does not seem to have been significant defection from the police or army to the protest movement.
People grow angry far more often than they rebel. And rebellions rarely become revolutions.
So, we need to distinguish between major revolutions that transform social and political structures, coups by armed elites and common forms of protest over particular issues. An example of this is the massive, violent and ultimately successful protests in Ecuador last month that forced the government to cancel an austerity package.
The protests in Hong Kong and Catalonia fall into yet another category: they have limited aims for political sovereignty rather than more general objectives.
All successful revolutions are characterised by broad alliances at the outset as the deep-seated grievances of a range of social groups coalesce around opposition to the existing regime.
a national Citizen Assembly, populated by ordinary people chosen at random, to come up with a programme for change.
Mass protests also fail when they are unable to create unity around core objectives. The Arab Spring, for instance, held so much promise after blossoming in 2010, but with the possible exception of Tunisia, failed to lead to meaningful change.
Revolutionary alliances collapsed rapidly into civil war (as in Libya) or failed to neutralise the armed forces (as in Egypt and Syria).
Why is there so much anger?
Fundamental to an understanding of the rage so evident today is the “democratic deficit”. This refers to public anger at the way the high-water mark of democratic reform around the globe in the 1990s – accompanied by the siren song of economic globalisation – has had such uneven social outcomes.
One expression of this anger has been the rise of fearful xenophobia expertly captured by populist politicians, most famously in the case of Donald Trump, but including many others from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Victor Orbán in Hungary.
Elsewhere, the anger is popular rather than populist. In upheavals from Lebanon and Iraq to Zimbabwe and Chile, resentment is particularly focused on the evidence of widespread corruption as elites flout the basic norms of transparency and equity in siphoning government money into their pockets and those of their cronies.
The broader context of today’s upheavals also includes the uneven withdrawal of the US from international engagement, providing new opportunities for two authoritarian superpowers (Russia and China) driven by dreams of new empires.
The United Nations, meanwhile, is floundering in its attempt to provide alternative leadership through a rules-based international system.
There was already deep-seated anger in both places. Chile, for example, is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, but has one of the worst levels of income equality among the 36 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Rebellions with new characteristics
Of course, we do not know how these protest movements will end. While it is unlikely any of the rebellions will result in revolutionary change, we are witnessing distinctly 21st century upheavals with new characteristics.
One of the most influential approaches to understanding the long-term history and nature of protest and insurrection has come from the American sociologist Charles Tilly.
Tilly’s studies of European history have identified two key characteristics.
First, forms of protest change across time as a function of wider changes in economic and political structures. The food riots of pre-industrial society, for instance, gave way to the strikes and political demonstrations of the modern world.
Tilly’s second theory was that collective protest, both peaceful and violent, is endemic rather than confined to years of spectacular revolutionary upheaval, such as 1789 or 1917. It is a continuing expression of conflict between “contenders” for power, including the state. It is part of the historical fabric of all societies.
Even in a stable and prosperous country like Australia in 2019, there is a deep cynicism around a commitment to the common good. This has been created by a lack of clear leadership on climate change and energy policy, self-serving corporate governance and fortress politics.
The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.
Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.
I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.
An increasingly untenable position
The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.
However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.
The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.
Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.
Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.
Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.
In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.
Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.
And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,
While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.
Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.
The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.
There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.
Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.
And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.
There are few other options
Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.
In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.
In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.
In other fire conditions, staying and defending requires accurately assessing the safety of your house and the surrounding environment, preparing your property in line with current best practice and understanding fire conditions.
It also requires a realistic assessment of not just your personal physical capacity to stay and defend but also your psychological capacity.
Why do people stay and defend?
Our survey of people who experienced the 2017 NSW bushfires asked what they would do next summer if there were catastrophic conditions. Some 27% would get ready to stay and defend, and 24% said they would wait to see if there was a fire before deciding whether to stay and defend or leave.
Animal ownership, a lack of insurance, and valuable assets such as agricultural sheds and equipment, are motivators for decisions to stay and defend.
change their plan at the last minute, including leaving late which is the most dangerous response to a fire
drive unsafely, especially speeding
forget to take important items (such as medication)
leave their animals behind
engage in unrelated tasks that took up precious time
ignore the threat (by going to sleep, for example).
This is one person’s account of how they responded as the fire approached:
[I] grabbed my son […] saw the smoke and […] went and got the boxes that I’d prepared which I packed when he was a baby. So I had stupid things in the boxes, like baby outfits. But I can’t freak him out […]
[I]n the back of my mind I’m thinking about what do I need to do […] I’ve quarter a tank of diesel, I’d better go get diesel. I also had a back seat full of books that I’d been tidying up [from] his room, so I thought op shop, better do that because I’ll clear the back seat. […]
Came in the house like a mad woman screaming for cats, nowhere in sight. I’ve got four cats and not one of them [is there]. Grabbed a bag and then started putting stupid amounts of clothes in like 20 pair of socks, and then basically I threw the dog in the car. […] So flat panic.
The spectrum of actions from frenzy and flight to freezing reflects the model of “affective tolerance”. When stress exceeds what we can tolerate, we can become hyper-aroused and may have racing thoughts and act impulsively.
Or we may experience hypo-arousal, where we shut down and feel numb and passive.
Our brains consist of three basic parts: the brain stem, limbic system and cortex. These are sometimes described as the primitive, emotional and thinking brains.
In most situations, our thinking brain mediates physical responses to the world around us.
But under high amounts of stress, this connecting loop between the more reactive emotional and physical parts of our brain and our thinking cortex becomes separated. University of California, Los Angeles, professor of psychiatry Dan Siegel describes this as flipping our lid.
Flipping our lid is an automatic response and, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a highly useful one – we don’t have time to think about whether or not to run when our lives are threatened.
have accessed information on what it means to be mentally prepared
have previous experience of bushfires
are mindful (have the ability to stay present)
use an active coping style such as the AIM model (anticipate, identify, manage)
have low levels of stress and depression.
Currently, the most accessible resource on developing mental preparedness is the Australian Red Cross RediPlan guide which includes preparing your mind based on the AIM (anticipate, identify, manage) model.
The impacts of the bushfires that are overwhelming emergency services in New South Wales and Queensland suggest houses are being built in areas where the risks are high. We rely heavily on emergency services to protect people and property, but strategic land-use planning can improve resilience and so help reduce the risk in the first place. This would mean giving more weight to considering bushfire hazards at the earliest stages of planning housing supply.
The outstanding dedication of emergency agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is obvious in their efforts to save lives and properties despite the increasing intensity of fires. However, strategic land-use planning could help reduce the risks by being more responsive to such changes in hazards.
Strategic planning policies and practices provide the opportunity to be more attentive to changes in bushfire hazards in particular. Planning decisions that fail to do this may leave communities exposed and heavily reliant on emergency services during a disaster.
Locating new or expanding existing settlements and infrastructure in areas exposed to unreasonable risk is irresponsible.
The increasing intensity of hazards associated with climate change makes strategic planning even more relevant. Land-use planners could help greatly with building resilience by placing natural hazards at the top of their assessment criteria.
Coordinating land-use planning reforms is itself a challenge. Planning in Australia involves many policies, institutions, professions and decision-makers. Policies and processes differ depending on the state or territory.
Furthermore, planners must reconcile the demand for residential land from population growth and the need to protect the environment. Deciding where to locate housing is often fraught with complexity, so the process needs expert early input from relevant scientific communities and emergency services.
Anticipate risk to reduce it
Land-use planning offers an opportunity in the earliest phase of development to manage the combined pressures of population growth, urban expansion, increasing density and risks of natural hazards.
When rezoning land for residential development, many issues have to be considered. These include environmental sustainability, demand for housing and the location of existing buildings and infrastructure, as well as natural hazards. It’s a complex and intricate process, but clearly the strategic planning stage is the first opportunity to minimise exposure to bushfire risk.
Existing policy and processes may defer the detailed review of bushfire risk and other natural hazards to development stages after land has been rezoned. There’s a case for policy to increase the importance attached to bushfire hazards at this early stage.
Ultimately, strategic planners aim to locate settlements away from risk of natural hazards. However, bushfires continue to have disastrous impacts on people and properties. Ongoing demand for housing may add pressure to build in areas exposed to risk.
Settlements are pushing into undeveloped areas that are more likely to be exposed to bushfire risk. The role of strategic land-use planning then becomes even more critical. The devastation we have seen this month shows why this risk must be given the highest priority in land-use planning, particularly when zoning land as residential.
The increasing intensity of bushfires points to a need to rethink planning processes and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to such hazards before they arise. This will help ease the burden on emergency services of managing a disaster when it happens. We can’t ignore the opportunities to minimise the risks at the early stages of land-use planning. Key steps include:
a policy review to mandate natural hazards, including bushfire risk, as one of the highest priorities in policy, with an objective framework for making land-use decisions
mandatory consultation with relevant science disciplines to model natural hazard risks when land is considered for rezoning
involve emergency services in the strategic planning phase to help minimise future risk.
The government is responding to increasing concern about the faltering economy by accelerating A$3.8 billion of infrastructure investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion for the current and next financial years.
Scott Morrison will outline the infrastructure move in a speech to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday night, while insisting the government is not panicking about Australia’s economic conditions.
The government’s action follows increasing calls for some stimulus, with concern the tax cuts have not flowed through strongly enough to spending.
The just-released minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting show the bank seriously considered another rate cut at its November meeting but held off, partly because it thought that might not have the desired effect. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has previously urged more spending on infrastructure.
Morrison is making appearances in various states to publicise the government’s infrastructure plans.
The infrastructure bring-forward over the coming 18 months is $1.27 billion plus $510 million in extra funding. Over the forward estimates, the bring-forward is $2.72 billion plus $1.06 billion in additional funding.
The government’s latest action means since the election it will have injected an extra $9.5 billion into the economy for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This comprises $7.2 billion in tax relief, $1.8 billion in infrastructure bring-forwards and additional projects, and $550 million in drought assistance to communities.
In his BCA speech, draft extracts of which have been released, Morrison is expected to say that “a panicked reaction to contemporary challenges would amount to a serious misdiagnosis of our economic situation”.
“A responsible and sensible government does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly.”
He will say that notwithstanding the headwinds, including the drought which has cut farm production, the economy has continued to grow, and is forecast to “gradually pick up from here” with jobs growth remaining solid.
“Against this backdrop, it would be reckless to discard the disciplined policy framework that has steered us through many difficult periods, most recently and most significantly the end of the mining investment boom, which posed an even greater threat to our economy than the GFC.”
The projected return to surplus this financial year would be a “significant achievement”.
Lauding the government’s legislated tax relief, Morrison will say. “Our response to the economic challenges our nation faces has been a structural investment in Australian aspiration, backed by responsible economic management.”
This past weekend, The New York Times’ China correspondents, Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, published an expose of over 400 internal Chinese government documents relating to Beijing’s mass detentions of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang.
This trove of documents includes 96 internal speeches by Chinese President and Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping, as well as hundreds of speeches and directives by other CCP officials on the strategies of surveillance and control implemented in the region.
The documents confirm previous analyses by researchers on key aspects of the Chinese government’s so-called “reeducation” system for Uighurs. They also reveal new details on both the timing and rationale for the mass detentions and the extent of opposition within the CCP to this approach.
Most importantly, however, the documents confirm Xi’s high level of personal involvement in driving the campaign of repression in Xinjiang.
What the documents confirm
A number of Xi’s internal speeches confirm previous assessments of the reasons behind the implementation of the government’s mass detention and “reeducation” policies.
It’s clear from the documents that fears of potential connections between violence in Xinjiang and Islamic extremism in neighbouring Afghanistan and the battlefields of Iraq and Syria played a key role in Xi’s call for a “people’s war on terrorism”.
In one speech, for instance, Xi remarks that with the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, “terrorist organisations” would be “positioned on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan” while
East Turkestan terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
In this context, a number of high-profile terrorist attacks that have occurred in China in recent years, including a train station attack in Kunming and a bombing at a marketplace in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, appear to have confirmed such fears.
As Xi asserted during a visit to a counterterrorism police unit in Urumqi the same month as the marketplace attack, the party must “unleash” the “tools of dictatorship” and “show absolutely no mercy” in its eradication of “extremists”.
The documents also demonstrate that the CCP’s recent tendency to frame both “extremists” and religious believers more broadly through the language of biological contagion or drug addiction comes from the top.
Xi himself states that those “infected” by “extremism” would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment”, lest they have
their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.
This language of paternalistic state intervention is not mere rhetoric, but concretely guides policy on the ground.
This is evident in one document prepared to assist local officials in the city of Turpan respond to queries by Uighur children of relatives sent to “reeducation” camps.
If officials are asked why those sent to the detention centres cannot return home, for example, they should answer by noting the party would be “irresponsible” to
let a member of your family go home before their illness was cured.
Rather, children should be grateful to the state for the detention of their family members and should
treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills.
The Turpan document also confirms the link between “reeducation” and forced labour. It notes family members undergoing “reeducation” can
find a satisfying job in one of the businesses that we’ve brought in or established.
As American researcher Darren Byler has detailed, detainees are often compelled to work as low-skilled labour in factories either directly connected to re-education centres or, upon their “release”, in nearby industrial parks where Chinese companies have been incentivised to relocate.
Key revelations in the reporting
There are several major revelations associated with the documents, as well. Most significant of all, according to the Times, is the fact the documents were leaked
by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.
Beyond such a (presumably) high-placed official, the leaked documents and reporting also reveal a greater level of dissent and uncertainty within lower levels of the party than previously understood.
Internal party documents note 12,000 investigations in 2017 alone into party members in Xinjiang for “violations” in the “fight against separatism and extremism”.
According to a “confession”, the local party chief in Yarkand in the far south of Xinjiang initially followed central policy directives by zealously building “two sprawling new detention facilities, including one as big as 50 basketball courts” and “doubling spending on outlays such as checkpoints and surveillance”.
However, fearing mass detentions would negatively impact on economic development goals and social cohesion – key benchmarks for achieving promotion within the party – Wang “broke the rules” and released thousands of detainees.
For this, he was removed from his post in 2017 and in an internal party report six months later was openly castigated for his “brazen defiance” of the “central leadership’s strategy for Xinjiang”.
Wang’s case demonstrates the existence of competing incentives at the local level in the implementation of centrally dictated policy.
His “brazen defiance” was not a principled stand against mass detentions but rather a pragmatic consideration of the potentially negative effects on his career should detentions undermine broader policy goals.
In this regard, it feels like a fairly typical experience of a low-level official in any authoritarian or totalitarian regime around the world.
It is this mundane quality that gives at least a kernel of hope the naked self-interest of party officials may play a part in pressuring the leadership to eventually reverse course on its Uighur detention policies.
However, given the stark and cold-blooded language revealed in the documents, this may prove to be a forlorn one.
It’s hard to comprehend why someone would deliberately light a bushfire. Yet this behaviour regularly occurs in Australia and other countries. We would go a long way to preventing bushfires if we better understood this troubling phenomenon.
This criminal behaviour is not widely recognised or understood by the public, fire authorities or researchers. This means opportunities to prevent bushfires are generally being missed and resources devoted to tackling the cause are far from commensurate with the devastating consequences.
Profile of an arsonist
Research has shown about 8% of officially recorded vegetation fires were attributed to malicious lighting, and another 22% as suspicious. However, about 40% of officially recorded vegetation fires did not have an assigned cause. When unassigned bushfires were investigated by fire investigators, the majority were found to be maliciously lit.
But official fires are just the tip of the iceberg: the actual number of bushfires in Australia is thought to be about five times that recorded. Virtually none of these unrecorded fires are investigated.
Young men comprise the largest group of people who maliciously light fires. These youth are usually troubled, likely to have absent fathers and little home supervision. They are likely to have experienced child abuse and neglect and associated with an antisocial peer group. Lighting fires may give a feeling of excitement, defiance and power, or it may be an expression of displaced anger. Some offenders have an intellectual disability.
Offenders may make no attempt to extinguish the fire, and give little consideration to the consequences. Some may have no feelings of remorse or fear of punishment. Others may never have intended to create such wide devastation.
Older males who light malicious fires also have a history of social and educational disadvantage, poor family functioning in childhood, low self-esteem, and often a pathological interest in fire. However the older the person gets, the less likely they are to light fires.
Media attention on a fire’s cause is generally scant and the public rarely hears much beyond initial charges being laid. This is in stark contrast to blanket news coverage of the consequences of bushfires.
A staggeringly low apprehension and conviction rate for offenders – less than 1% – is a further barrier to public awareness of the problem. Conviction rarely leads to a substantial punishment.
Fire brigades in most states offer a limited education course for some children who light fires, usually led by volunteers. But there are few targeted treatment programs for those who light bushfires.
Rethinking the bushfire problem
Rather than tackling the cause of the problem, the major response to bushfire in Australia is mitigation. This largely involves one blunt approach: hazard reduction burns to reduce bushfire fuel loads. This is an increasingly difficult task as climate change makes weather conditions more unsuitable for controlled burns.
A much greater focus on prevention would require a significant rethinking of the bushfire problem. This would include collaboration between government, business, non-government organisations, communities and others.
Victoria’s Gippsland Arson Prevention Program provides a promising model. Through public education, media engagement and other means, it informs communities on how to help prevent arson. The committee includes Victoria Police, government and fire authorities and local power generators.
In one example of an on-the-ground response, local authorities organised the removal of dumped cars, which are commonly seen by bored and troubled youth as an invitation to start a fire.
Arson prevention also includes addressing long-term problems such as youth disadvantage and unemployment, especially in rural-urban fringe areas where most human-lit fires occur.
Shorter-term approaches include providing support and treatment to at-risk youth, and situational crime prevention such as good lighting and cameras in places vulnerable to fire lighting.
We must open up a society-wide discussion of bushfire prevention, which includes listening to local communities about what they value and what can be done about the problem. As climate change worsens – and bushfires along with it – a radical rethink is required.
A parasite is an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species.
Three main classes of parasites can cause disease in humans: protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites. Protozoa and helminths largely affect the gut, while ectoparasites include lice and mites that can attach to or burrow into the skin, staying there for long periods of time.
The majority of protozoa and helminths tend to be non-pathogenic (meaning they don’t cause disease) or result in very mild illness. Some, however, can cause severe disease in humans.
Faecal-oral transmission, where parasites found in the stool of one person end up being swallowed by another person, is the most common mode of transmission of parasitic protozoa and helminths.
The initial symptoms tend to be gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhoea. When parasites invade the red blood cells or organs, the consequences can become more serious.
Protozoa are tiny single-celled organisms that multiply inside the human body.
The protozoa giardia, for example, has a classic two-stage life cycle. In the first stage, called trophozoite, the parasite swims around and consumes nutrients from the small bowel. In the second stage it develops into a non-moving cyst.
Cysts excreted in faeces can contaminate the water supply, and ingesting contaminated food or water results in transmission. Close human to human contact and unsanitary living conditions can promote transmission.
Symptoms of giardia can include severe or chronic diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, fatigue, weakness and weight loss.
Other important protozoa are the plasmodium species. Plasmodium develop in mosquitoes, and infected mosquitoes transmit the parasite to humans by biting them. Plasmodium destroys red blood cells which impacts organ function and causes a disease in humans known as malaria.
Malaria causes the most deaths of all parasitic diseases. In 2017 it was estimated malaria resulted in 435,000 deaths globally, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Helminths, often called worms, are large multicellular organisms usually visible to the naked eye in their adult stages. As a general rule, helminths cannot multiply inside the human body.
One major group of helminths are flatworms. Flatworms literally have flattened soft bodies. Their digestive cavity has only one opening for both the ingestion and removal of food. It’s thought 80% of flatworms are parasitic.
Tapeworms are one type of flatworm. The most common human tapeworm in Australia is the dwarf tapeworm. The prevalence of dwarf tapeworm in isolated communities in northwest Australia is estimated to be around 55%.
Infestation in humans comes from ingesting dwarf tapeworm eggs. Transmission from person to person occurs via the faecal-oral route. As with other parasites, the major risk factors are poor sanitation and shared living quarters. Symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss and weakness.
Another major group of helminths are nematodes, commonly known as roundworms. Nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth and can be found in almost every environment. Unlike flatworms, they do have a digestive system that extends from the mouth to the anus.
The eggs or larvae of these nematodes usually develop in soil before being transmitted to the human host. For this reason these nematodes are often called soil-transmitted helminths. A good example are hookworms which infest humans by penetrating the skin from contaminated soil. So wearing appropriate footwear is an important way to prevent hookworm transmission.
The pinworm Enterobius vermicularis has a different life cycle to the other nematodes. Pinworm larvae develop in eggs on the skin near the anus or under the fingernails.
Pinworm, also known as threadworm, is the most common helminth parasite in Australia. Itching around the anus is a major symptom of pinworm. Pinworms are easily passed from one person to another and it’s common for entire families to be infested.
The term ectoparasites generally refers to organisms such as ticks, fleas, lice and mites that can attach or burrow into the skin and remain there for long periods of time.
Scabies, for example, a contagious skin disease marked by itching and small raised red spots, is caused by the human itch mite. Scabies usually is spread by direct, prolonged, skin-to-skin contact.
Head lice are small, wingless insects that live and breed in human hair and feed by sucking blood from the scalp.
Prevention and treatment
Some parasites can lie dormant for extended periods of time. This can make the diagnosis of parasitic infestation challenging as there may be no symptoms, or symptoms can be vague and non-specific.
The good news is we have very good medications to treat many different kinds of parasites once they’ve been diagnosed. These medications do have side effects but on the whole are very effective.