Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
Today, we continue our profile series, celebrating public health experts who’ve been recognised in the latest Australia Day Honours.
Adelaide-based Professor Helen Marshall AM enjoyed a double celebration in January. Firstly, being appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, and secondly, being named the 2022 South Australia Australian of the Year and attending the Australian of the Year Awards.
Helen’s Australian Honours ‘gong’ citation recognised her ‘significant service to medicine in the field of vaccinology and public health, to research, and to education.’
Professor Helen Marshall is a well-renowned vaccination researcher in Australia, who has had strong global influence on the evidence base of specialities including infectious disease and vaccinology. She has worked at the Women’s and Children’s Health Network, and the Robinson Research Institute at University of Adelaide.
Professor Marshall’s particular focus has been on halting meningococcal B disease internationally. She led the South Australian ‘B Part of It’ study on how herd immunity through meningococcal B vaccination could protect young people from contracting meningococcal B disease.
Professor Marshall has been awarded three Fellowships from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), and has, since 2004, received over $35 million of research funding, including 17 NHMRC grants. She has published over 220 peer-reviewed articles. According to the Australian of the Year website, Prof Marshall has also “provided advice about meningococcal B and COVID-19 to the South Australian Minister for Health and the Chief Public Health Officer.”
Why did you choose a career in public health?
Helen completed a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, Doctorate of Medicine, Master in Public Health (MPH) and Diploma in Child Health at the University of Adelaide, and completed the international Advanced Vaccinology Course at the Pasteur Merieux Institute, France.
However, a four-month stint in Western Samoa in her mid-20s shaped Helen’s career and life. In the small Pacific nation, she saw first-hand the serious effect that poor health service access had on children.
After returning from Samoa, Helen undertook paediatric training and quickly recognised the value of research when she completed her MPH. For Helen, it was a ‘light bulb moment’, recognising how much greater influence she could have helping larger population groups than individuals as a clinician.
What part of your career gives you the greatest satisfaction?
“Collaboration is so important to me. I love learning from other people, and I’m fortunate to have access to experts in the field both nationally and internationally,” Helen said.
“I also get a great deal of satisfaction seeing the transformation of really good, robust research to help inform public policy.”
How has COVID impacted your life and work?
For Helen and her team, the biggest challenge created by the pandemic has been their ability to continue with important clinical trials.
“With all of the restrictions that have been in place it’s been difficult for people to come forward for clinical trials.
“I see research as an ‘essential service’ and I believe that even in a pandemic we need to put as much effort and resources into maintaining research. If research takes a back seat, we’re simply unable to advance new treatments.”
This was well explained by Helen on video when she was named a 2021 South Australian Science Awards finalist.
As a researcher, Helen feels Australia has lagged behind other nations during the pandemic.
“In Australia, we haven’t quite got it right finding a mechanism to efficiently do the research needed to inform COVID related policy.
“In the UK, it is different. There, the Chief Medical Officer can directly engage research groups to undertake policy relevant research such as a COVID booster study, which means there is sound evidence available in time to make a difference.”
Helen hopes to soon speak on this issue with Australia’s Health Minister.
She also hopes to speak with the Minister about the importance of equity, and access to vaccinations for all children.
“We have a good mechanism for evaluation and funding of vaccines as part of a population process but we don’t have in place targeted programs for high-risk groups. We need a mechanism in place to provide vaccines to these groups.”
Who would you like to give a shout out to?
“At this moment I’d like to shout out to the nurses and doctors on the frontline treating patients with COVID. They don’t get enough acknowledgement and thanks. I’d also like to shoutout to the millions of doctors and nurses around the world who are providing vaccines for billions of people.”
Helen also commended everyone who has supported the fight against COVID-19.
“Although the pandemic has created so many challenges, it’s amazing how many people, from so many areas, have worked together to try to manage it.”
If you were the Minister for Health for a day, what would you do?
“I think it’s so important that we prioritise and target immunisation programs for high-risk groups.
“About 4% of children in Australia don’t get vaccinated. This is not about anti-vaccination. These people simply find themselves in different circumstances to the majority of us.
“We badly need a targeted process, even if it means knocking on doors. These families do want their children vaccinated. It is just their circumstances that prevent it.
“So, I’d be asking the Minister to put resources in place to ensure every child gets vaccinated on time, every time.”
Helen also believes Australia should be doing more to promote and support vaccine equity.
“We’re not going to be able to control the pandemic and its variants until we have the whole world vaccinated, particularly in places without enough vaccine like Africa.”
What advice would you give for someone considering a career in public health?
“I’d say, ‘we need you’.
“The pandemic has highlighted the shortage of people working in public health, in vaccinology, and in epidemiology. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
“I expect we will be in this pandemic for the next 10 years and we must make sure we have all the resources we need for things like ongoing immunisation delivery. This is a fantastic opportunity to make an impact.”
Helen says a career in public health is ‘such an exciting area to be in’.
“It’s incredibly interesting and you can have a lot of impact. There’s also a lot of diversity, and an opportunity to work across a whole range of areas.”
What’s coming next for you in your career?
Having played a lead role in the ground-breaking South Australian ‘B Part of It’ study, Helen is now leading the follow-up ‘B Part of It NT’ study, which she describes as an important ‘cross protection’ project.
“Meningococcal B vaccine is being provided to 14-19-year-olds across the Northern Territory and to date we’ve recruited 1,500 young people. We’re ultimately hoping to enrol 5,000 young people for the study.
“The vaccine will protect young people from meningococcal B, while the study will also collect information that could help inform if the vaccine may also offer protection against gonorrhoea too.
“We’re seeing high rates of gonorrhoea in remote communities and so it’s an enormous public health issue and a great opportunity for us to get it under control.
“This is a big focus for me, and while it will take several years, this study will help inform the control of gonorrhoea. It’s also something the World Health Organization has a great interest in.”
Image: Professor Helen Marshall AM. Courtesy: Helen Marshall.