Australian National University’s Dr Martyn Kirk fights disease, saves lives every day

Written by admin on 05/07/2018 Categories: 南京夜网

Dr Martyn Kirk from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Dr Martyn Kirk from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Nanjing Night Net

Dr Martyn Kirk from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Dr Martyn Kirk from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Australian National University public health expert Dr Martyn Kirk originally aimed to be a marine biologist – he was itching to be involved with the beach somehow because he was a surfer. However, his career took a watery detour after his first application for a job, with the Victorian Health Department.

“I got it and never looked back and have never been near the beach ever again,” says Dr Kirk, 48, adding that the job meant ensuring the safety of drinking water and that contained by swimming pools and cooling towers in the state of Victoria.

Now, the outbreak investigator still handles water-borne and food-borne diseases, but his career has an aerial slant because he co-runs the remarkable Australian Response MAE (ARM) Network: a flying squad of public health specialists who rush to crises around the country and the world to tackle disease.

The rapid-response network involves about 170 alumni from his Master in Applied Epidemiology (MAE) course training disease detectives. Some alumni work in the downtown Melbourne health department, addressing any outbreak that erupts in Victoria. Others work in Manila, Cambodia and Geneva, flying in and out as outbreaks emerge. Still others are embedded in West Africa, tackling ebola.

Ebola is a special case because it has such a high mortality rate. Everyone deployed to an outbreak must be highly skilled and experienced and possess cultural competency: “a high degree of personal awareness about their own behaviours”.

More importantly, trainees learn how to avoid becoming infected. With ebola, they are advised against shaking hands or embracing but must strike a balance between personal distance and friendliness.

Dr Kirk says he is driven by two dynamics.”One is that, if we do a good job, we can stop people getting sick and dying, and that is just an amazing career objective.”

His second incentive is that he gets to investigate everything from cholera in the Pacific to domestic salmonella outbreaks linked with tahini from the Middle East. “So just a huge array of interesting scientific problems to solve,” says Dr Kirk, who consults for governments and the World Health Organisation on gastrointestinal diseases.

His toughest challenge is handling outsize emergencies. Sometimes, hundreds fall sick and some die, and you wish you had addressed the crisis earlier, he says, “acutely aware” that everyone who sickens or dies has family who also suffer. “And it’s a really terrible thing,” he says, adding that the aim is to get in quick and execute a robust investigation that prevents further infections.

Dr Kirk was raised by a hospital-manager father and teacher mother in Inverloch, a seaside town on the Gippsland coastline. There, his interest in marine biology arose and mutated into public health – he wound up with a doctorate in food-borne diseases affecting the elderly. On a $130,000-wage, he has to be deft at teamwork, grasping how diseases spread, and interpreting vital population health data.

His devotion to public health feeds into his extra-mural diversions. On one Hanoi visit, he witnessed caterers washing bowls in the gutter – the same bowls they put meat in and washed their hair with. Elsewhere, his “extremely astute” 19-year-old daughter said: “Dad, is this place safe to eat? I just saw a cat on the kitchen bench.”

His advice on avoiding infection is to skip such venues and wash your hands. Also, if the water supply is uncertain, drink bottled water. If the food supply is questionable, stick with cooked meals, remembering the adage: “Cook it, peel it, shell it or leave it.”

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