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In January of this year, Dr Meru Sheel was in Tonga, helping provide expert advice on how the Pacific nation could quell a deadly measles outbreak.
Then, almost overnight, she found herself helping prepare the country for COVID-19.
“It still remains a very surreal situation for me. When I was in Tonga, I had a suspicion COVID-19 could get big, but I never imagined it would unfold the way it has.”
Now Meru, a preeminent infectious disease epidemiologist at the Australian National University’s Research School of Population Health, has found herself on the front line of helping prepare countries in the Asia Pacific for the global pandemic—as well as providing advice in the Australian response to the virus.
The New York Times recently named epidemiologists the new rock stars and Meru is grateful that the general public is more aware of what is achieved in the field—when she previously had to explain the word on a regular basis.
Not that she ever wanted a pandemic to create a career highlight.
Having spent 15 years in the field of infectious diseases, and last year winning a Westpac Research Fellowship, recognised as the winner for science and medicine for 40under40, and featured in HerCanberra as one of the city’s shining lights, Meru is currently doing her work from Canberra, a far cry from donning Personal Protective Equipment and working in the field in communities in crisis.
She has worked in countries ranging from American Samoa, Fiji, Dominica and Bangladesh on combatting diseases and outbreaks including filariasis, diarrhoeal disease, influenza and diphtheria.
“When I was in Tonga we had to move very quickly to prepare them for COVID-19. I facilitated and coordinated the response preparedness activities and they closed their borders while we upskilled their team and built their health facilities.”
She is proud to say that Tonga has remained COVID-19 free as a result of its early action.
Australia has also done a good job of containing the virus through strong and early action—backed up by a proactive community response.
“We have done pretty well with low numbers, and while it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods, I am fairly optimistic.”
But she warned that “complacency is always a problem and there will always be a risk of a second wave, so my strong sense is that we need to keep our public health response at vigilant, keep our messaging strong and keep the community engagement high, otherwise we could still be blindsided. Countries like Singapore have seen a second wave and that is a reality possible in many countries.”
Yet Meru also believed that such drastic social actions as keeping students out of school and people largely off the streets, could not be maintained in the long term.
“Society has to restart at some point and schools are so important—they are one of the most crucial elements in the learning and development of our children. If this was a short-term thing then you would be weighing up the risks versus the benefits differently, like with measles or influenza or chickenpox where you would lockdown until the outbreak was contained.”
“But the growing evidence is that kids are not a big spreader of the virus. If we had seen kids and teachers infected in large numbers early on or if we had community transmission, then maybe it would be a different approach but if we can see children return to school with caution and with operational guidance on social distancing and enough hand sanitiser and soap and water then hopefully we can reopen schools safely.”
More generally, Meru believed strong social distancing measures would be part of all of our lives for the next one to two years.
“It is difficult to imagine that we can eliminate the virus in Australia completely and even if we did, we can’t keep our borders shut forever, so we are going to need strong quarantine measures, public health response measures and community awareness for a long time.”
She also noted that with a vaccine still to be developed, it was more likely that developments could be made in the treatment of the virus.
“I am actually more hopeful about a treatment than a vaccine. Remember in the majority of cases the symptoms are fairly mild, but if we can develop treatments that prevent severe cases from dying and enable our health systems to cope with cases then that would be a huge win.”
Meru said it had been a challenging time to work in the field, even while she was “stuck” in Canberra.
“It has actually been humbling to see the way in which infectious disease experts have played such an enormous part in guiding the world through this crisis. Previously, people would say to me that infectious diseases were becoming less and less a problem in the world, and yet here we are facing COVID-19 which has not only led to high death rates, but also indicated health system failures, economic failures and societal failures. It has reminded us exactly how vulnerable we all are after all.”
“I do wonder what does the world look like after this. I don’t think it will ever be the same.”
Feature image: Tim Bean Photography