Taking the fight to disease
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Associate Professor Jeff Warner could have had a comfortable, predictable life in Sydney.
But as a then 20-something laboratory scientist, he knew he would never be satisfied with a routine career in the big smoke.
So, he asked a ‘wise mentor’ how he could be involved in work on the frontlines of tropical disease. The answer would end up defining his career - “Seek it out.”
“I had always wanted to do something around tropical medicine and infectious diseases, ever since I was at uni,” Jeff said.
“I was just reading a journal article and within the journal there was an advertisement for someone with pathology experience to do a 12-week stint up in a very rural part of Papua New Guinea to develop medical labs.
“So, I spoke to the guy who was advertising the position, Wayne Melrose, and he said I’d be perfect for it.
“Of those 12 weeks in PNG, the first six were the worst of my life and the second six weeks were the best of my life.”
Jeff worked with a non-government organisation to develop laboratory services and train staff.
“It really affected me, both personally and professionally,” he said.
“My first lecture ever in my life was at the nursing school in the western province of PNG about infectious diseases and microbiology.
“It opened my eyes to this community and the difference between an urban world and a rural, remote world. This was confronting because health services and health expectations in a place like that are dramatically different.”
Through the development of diagnostic services, Jeff and his team were able to identify infections that weren’t well recognised in that part of the country.
“That’s where I stumbled across these children who were infected with melioidosis – one of the most common causes of fatal bacterial community-acquired pneumonia and sepsis in the Tropics,” he said.
“It’s caused by an organism called Burkholderia pseudomallei which resides in the environment. We instigated programs that even to this day, 20 years later, that small regional hospital, which currently has no doctors, just nurses and lab staff, can still diagnose melioidosis and save patients from an otherwise fatal infection.
“I have pictures on my wall of the melioidosis kids that survived because of the work we did there all those years ago. They’ve now had kids and whenever we’ve gone back there for further research work, they always remember.
“I’ve made lifelong friends, been inducted into tribes and have people who I call brother and sister. It’s a family.”
Choosing to undertake a PhD on what he experienced in PNG at JCU during the late 90s, Jeff was eventually tasked with developing JCU’s Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Science, which continues to see graduates excel in labs across regional Australia.
Currently leading the TB PNG Research group with like-minded colleagues, Jeff mentors post-graduate students on the frontlines of infectious disease research.
“It’s extremely fulfilling working with people who not only have the same sort of interest and passion, but are also excellent scientists who want to contribute to the greater good,” he said.
In the classroom, Jeff is passionate about giving his budding students an appreciation for making a difference across the region.
And it’s his first question to new students which underscores his mission.
“I ask them what our closest capital city is to Townsville. Some say Brisbane or Darwin when it’s actually Port Moresby. The capital city of another country,” he said.
“I think we have a responsibility to look after our region because our region is the Tropics. We share it with people from vastly different backgrounds but we are relatively privileged in Australia.
“You get back so much more working in those remote places than you could possibly give.”