Australia’s notifiable diseases status, 2003: Annual report of the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System - Introduction and Methods

The Australia’s notifiable diseases status, 2003 report provides data and an analysis of communicable disease incidence in Australia during 2003. The full report is available in 20 HTML documents. This document contains the Introduction and Methods section. The full report is also available in PDF format from the Table of contents page.

Page last updated: 14 April 2005

Megge Miller, Paul Roche, Keflemariam Yohannes, Jenean Spencer, Mark Bartlett, Julia Brotherton, Jenny Hutchinson, Martyn Kirk, Ann McDonald, Claire Vadjic


Surveillance of communicable diseases is vital to the control of communicable diseases, to identify and assess the relative burden of diseases and to monitor trends over time. It is also required for the guidance of policy making.

Communicable disease surveillance in Australia exists at the national, state and local levels. Primary responsibility for public health action lies with the state and territory health departments and with local health authorities.

The role of communicable disease surveillance at a national level includes:

  • identifying national trends;
  • guidance for policy development at a national level and resource allocation;
  • monitoring the need for and impact of national disease control programs;
  • coordination of response to national or multi-jurisdictional outbreaks;
  • description of the epidemiology of rare diseases, that occur infrequently at state and territory levels;
  • meeting various international reporting requirements, such as providing disease statistics to the World Health Organization (WHO), and;
  • support for quarantine activities, which are the responsibility of the national government.

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Australia is a federation of six states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia) and two territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). State and territory health departments collect notifications of communicable diseases under their public health legislation. The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) does not have any legislated responsibility for public health apart from human quarantine. States and territories have agreed to forward data on a nationally agreed set of communicable diseases to DoHA for the purposes of national communicable disease surveillance.

Fifty-eight communicable diseases (Table 1) agreed upon nationally through the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) were reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) in 2003. The system is complemented by other surveillance systems, which provide information on various diseases, including some that are not reported to NNDSS.

Table 1. Diseases notified to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, Australia, 2003*

Disease Data received from
Bloodborne diseases  
Hepatitis B (incident) All jurisdictions
Hepatitis B (unspecified) All jurisdictions except NT
Hepatitis C (incident) All jurisdictions except Qld
Hepatitis C (unspecified) All jurisdictions
Hepatitis D All jurisdictions
Hepatitis (NEC) All jurisdictions except WA
Gastrointestinal diseases  
Botulism All jurisdictions
Campylobacterosis All jurisdictions except NSW
Cryptosporidiosis All jurisdictions
Haemolytic uraemic syndrome All jurisdictions
Hepatitis A All jurisdictions
Hepatitis E All jurisdictions
Listeriosis All jurisdictions
Salmonellosis (NEC) All jurisdictions
Shigellosis All jurisdictions
SLTEC, VTEC All jurisdictions
Typhoid All jurisdictions
Quarantinable diseases  
Cholera All jurisdictions
Plague All jurisdictions
Rabies All jurisdictions
Severe acute respiratory syndrome All jurisdictions
Viral haemorrhagic fever (NEC) All jurisdictions
Yellow fever All jurisdictions
Sexually transmissible infections  
Chlamydial infection (NEC) All jurisdictions
Donovanosis All jurisdictions
Gonococcal infection All jurisdictions
Syphilis All jurisdictions
Syphilis – congenital All jurisdictions
Vaccine preventable diseases  
Diphtheria All jurisdictions
Haemophilus influenzae type b All jurisdictions
Influenza (laboratory confirmed) All jurisdictions*
Measles All jurisdictions
Mumps All jurisdictions
Pertussis All jurisdictions
Pneumococcal disease (invasive) All jurisdictions
Poliomyelitis All jurisdictions
Rubella All jurisdictions
Rubella – congenital All jurisdictions
Tetanus All jurisdictions
Vectorborne diseases  
Barmah forest virus infection All jurisdictions
Dengue All jurisdictions
Flavivirus infection (NEC) All jurisdictions
Japanese encephalitis virus All jurisdictions
Kunjin virus All jurisdictions except ACT
Malaria All jurisdictions
Murray Valley encephalitis virus All jurisdictions except ACT
Ross River virus infection All jurisdictions
Anthrax All jurisdictions
Australian bat lyssavirus All jurisdictions
Brucellosis All jurisdictions
Leptospirosis All jurisdictions
Lyssavirus (NEC) All jurisdictions
Ornithosis All jurisdictions
Q fever All jurisdictions
Other bacterial infections  
Legionellosis All jurisdictions
Leprosy All jurisdictions
Meningococcal infection All jurisdictions
Tuberculosis All jurisdictions

* Laboratory confirmed influenza was not a notifiable disease in the Australian Capital Territory or South Australia in 2003, but reports were forwarded to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System.

† In the Australian Capital Territory, Murray Valley encephalitis virus and Kunjin virus were combined under Murray Valley encephalitis virus.

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The national dataset included fields for unique record reference number; notifying state or territory; disease code; age; sex; Indigenous status; postcode of residence; date of onset of the disease; and date of report to the state or territory health department. Additional information was available on the species and serogroups isolated in cases of salmonellosis, legionellosis, meningococcal disease and malaria, and on the vaccination status in cases of childhood vaccine preventable diseases. While not included in the national dataset, additional information concerning mortality and specific health risk factors for some diseases was obtained from states and territories. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare supplied hospital admission data for the financial year 2002–03.

Notification rates for each notifiable disease were calculated using 2003 mid-year resident population supplied by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Appendix 1). Where diseases were not notifiable in a state or territory, adjusted rates were calculated by excluding the population of that jurisdiction from the denominator.

The geographical distribution of selected diseases was mapped using MapInfo software. Maps were based on the postcode of residence of each patient aggregated to the appropriate Statistical Division (Map 1). Rates for the different Statistical Divisions were ordered into six groups — the highest value, the lowest value above zero, those equal to zero, and the intermediate values sorted into three equal-sized groups. The two Statistical Divisions that make up the Australian Capital Territory were combined as were the two Statistical Divisions that make up the Northern Territory, to calculate rates for each territory as a whole.

Information from communicable disease surveillance is disseminated through several avenues of communication. Fortnightly teleconferences of the Communicable Diseases Network Australia provide the most up-to-date information on topics of immediate interest. The Communicable Diseases Intelligence (CDI) quarterly journal publishes surveillance data and reports of research studies on the epidemiology and control of various communicable diseases. The Communicable Diseases Australia website publishes disease surveillance summaries from the NNDSS. The annual report of the NNDSS, Australia’s notifiable diseases status, provides yearly summaries of notifications.

Notes on interpretation

The present report is based on 2003 ‘finalised’ annual data from each state and territory. States and territories transmitted data to DoHA each fortnight and the final dataset for the year was agreed upon in July 2004. The finalised annual dataset represents a snap shot of the year after duplicate records and incorrect or incomplete data have been removed. Therefore, totals in this report may vary slightly from the totals reported in CDI quarterly publications.

Analyses in this report were based on the date of disease onset in an attempt to estimate disease activity within the reporting period. Where the date of onset was not known however, the date of specimen collection or date of notification (report), whichever was earliest, was used. As considerable time may have lapsed between onset and report dates for hepatitis B (unspecified) and hepatitis C (unspecified) notifications, these were analysed by report date.

Under-reporting is an important factor that should be considered when interpreting NNDSS data. Figure 1 shows the steps necessary for an episode of illness in the population to reach the NNDSS. Each step contributes to under-reporting resulting in only a proportion of notifiable diseases reaching the surveillance system. Due to under-reporting, notified cases can only represent a proportion (the ‘notified fraction’) of the total incidence. Moreover, the notified fraction varies by disease, by jurisdiction and by time.

Figure 1. Communicable diseases notification fraction

Figure 1. Communicable diseases notification fraction

Methods of surveillance can vary between states and territories, each with different requirements for notification by medical practitioners, laboratories and hospitals. Some diseases were not notifiable in some jurisdictions (Table 1). The case definitions for surveillance vary among jurisdictions. In addition, changes to surveillance practices may be introduced in some jurisdictions and not in others, making comparison of data across jurisdictions difficult. To inform the interpretation of data in this report, states and territories were asked to report any changes in surveillance practices including changes in case definition, screening practices, laboratory practices, and major disease control or prevention initiatives undertaken in 2003.

Postcode information usually reflects the residential location of the case, but this does not necessarily represent the place where the disease was acquired. As no personal identifiers are collected in NNDSS, duplication in reporting may occur if patients move from one jurisdiction to another and were notified in both.

The completeness of data in this report is summarised in Appendix 3. The patient’s sex was not stated in 0.5 per cent of notifications (n=476) and the patient’s age was not stated in 0.1 per cent of notifications (n=57). Indigenous status was reported for 43.1 per cent of notifications nationally. The proportion of reports with missing data in these fields varied by state and territory and by disease.

Discussions and comments of CDNA members and state and territory epidemiologists have informed the present report and their contribution to the accuracy of these data is gratefully acknowledged.


This article {extract} was published in Communicable Diseases Intelligence Vol 29 No 1 March 2005 and may be downloaded as a full version PDF from the Table of contents page.

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