Helping people has always motivated Professor Fiona Russell (PhD 2011), who has improved the lives of countless families globally.
Professor Russell, who coordinated the Department of Paediatrics’ efforts to share COVID-19 research and keep the public informed, grew up in a family with a strong social conscience. This helped to inspire a decorated career as a paediatrician, epidemiologist and translational researcher that has shaped international public health policy.
TAKING ON THE WORLD
At just 17, Professor Russell, who was the youngest of five, moved to Adelaide to study medicine at Flinders University. She gravitated to paediatrics, studying and training in Melbourne, Sydney and Darwin, where she worked in Indigenous health. The inequities she saw in Indigenous health sparked her interest in public health.
During her medical degree, Professor Russell took a year off to travel the world and ended up in Egypt, Turkey, and India. She completed her medical electives in Malawi and Kenya, which helped shift her focus to public health on a global scale.
Professor Russell joined the Centre for International Child Health with Professor Kim Mulholland (MBBS 1976, MD 1996) and Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM (BMedSci 1986, MBBS 1986) when it was established in 2000 within the University of Melbourne’s Department of Paediatrics and the Royal Children’s Hospital. Her PhD was a clinical trial of pneumococcal vaccine schedules in Fiji, which demonstrated more suitable and affordable delivery methods. The results informed vaccine schedules and changed World Health Organisation (WHO) policy.
IMPROVING LIVES ACROSS THE WORLD
Professor Russell is now Child and Adolescent Health PhD Program Director, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Asia-Pacific Health Research Group Leader, and a Melbourne Children’s Global Health Leadership team member.
She consults with WHO and UNICEF and has led many projects that saw her live in Fiji and Vietnam for 10 years. Her work in Fiji, which includes writing child health policies, has led to its government, with DFAT support, introducing pneumococcal, rotavirus, and HPV vaccines. Nine other countries in the region will also do so.
Professor Russell is now measuring the successful health outcomes and among many other things leads a NHMRC trial on the prevention of maternal and infant infections in Fiji. She is also a WHO Maternal and Child Health COVID-19 research group member.
HIGHLIGHTING AND FIGHTING INEQUITY
During the COVID-19 crisis, Professor Russell led a regular Department of Paediatrics COVID-19 kids research evidence update and a series of COVID-19 Kids webinars on topics such as the pandemic’s effect on children and the impact on families in poor countries where the situation is potentially catastrophic.
“All the gains that have been made in maternal and child health for the last 20 years are going to just be lost … virtually in six months if essential services are shut down and that’s just devastating in poorer countries.”
Professor Russell is also Deputy Director of the Australian Regional Immunisation Alliance, which is likely to lead to COVID-19 support in places like the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste.
The pandemic has highlighted global inequalities and the need to address long neglected areas such as access to clean water and soap, decent housing, paid work, and affordable quality healthcare.
Through her networks and partnerships, Professor Russell also aims to ensure that all people, including the most vulnerable, can access a future COVID-19 vaccine.
“All this stuff takes a lot of stars to align and there’s a lot of players and a whole range of factors involved. A lot of it is advocacy work using local data and networking and nudging behind the scenes,” she says of her work.
“It has impact and it’s very measurable and very satisfying.”