The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) Tropical Diseases Research Group as its first Collaborating Centre for Scabies Control.

Infection and Immunity theme director Professor Andrew Steer will Head the WHO Collaborating Centre, which will be based at MCRI for the next four years.

WHO Collaborating Centres are institutions designated by the Director-General to carry out activities in support of the organisation's programs.

Scabies was recognised by the WHO in 2017 as a neglected tropical disease and is included in the portfolio of diseases at the WHO Department of the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. Targets for scabies control are included in the department's 2030 roadmap.

Professor Steer said the centre would help the organisation with technical advice for scabies control.

"The aim of our new centre is to support WHO to achieve its scabies control targets," he said. "We will do this by developing improved estimates of the burden of scabies worldwide, developing training materials to support control program activities and advocating for increased country access to scabies medications."

The new Collaborating Centre joins three others located on the Melbourne Children's Campus, recognition of the deep expertise across the campus in global child and adolescent health.

Professor Steer said despite scabies affecting hundreds of millions of people, it was possible to have a massive impact by treating whole populations.

In 2015, an entire community in an MCRI-led trial in Fiji was given the antiparasitic ivermectin. One year after the mass administration, the scabies prevalence declined by 94 per cent.

Since then, research by MCRI, conducted in partnership with the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney and the health ministries of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, has proven that the number of people with scabies in a community can be reduced by more than 90 per cent with community-wide treatment with ivermectin. 

The medication has been shown to be safe and can be feasibly delivered by community healthcare workers.

"Scabies is a disease of over-crowding. People in low-income, crowded, and tropical environments with inadequate access to health services are most prone to infestation," Dr Daniel Engelman, Team Leader in the Tropical Diseases Group at MCRI said. "Children are particularly vulnerable." 

MCRI also houses the World Scabies Program (WSP), established in 2019 thanks to an AU$10 million grant from the Macquarie Group's 50th anniversary philanthropic commitment to addressing social needs.

The program aims to equip low- and middle-income countries around the world with the tools and the resources to detect, monitor and control scabies in affected communities.

The WSP is working with Ministries of Health to treat 1.5 million people – the entire populations of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, which are among the world's most affected countries. 

WSP aims to control this highly contagious, debilitating disease in both countries to positively impact the quality of life for millions of people.