Health Sciences' graduate tackling Leprosy in Africa

3 February 2010

For many Australians, it is easy to take for granted our privileges, not least in our access to and choice of top quality education. Anne Roberts, a graduate of the University of Sydney's Faculty of Health Sciences, is extremely aware of this, after almost ten years of working abroad with those less fortunate.

Chronic fatigue syndrome forced Roberts to come back to Australia after one year of placement in Ethiopia, threatening to limit her life-changing work with patients of leprosy. A Master of Health Science (Education) by distance, however, enabled Roberts to simultaneously recover from poor health, pursue her studies, and apply her learning to her job.

Anne Roberts with her team of fellow physiotherapists at ALERT
Anne Roberts with her team of fellow physiotherapists at ALERT

A physiotherapy graduate, Roberts joined The Leprosy Mission International (TLM) in 2000, and spent four years in India gaining experience working with leprosy patients. In 2004, Roberts was transferred to The All-Africa Leprosy, Tuberculosis, Rehabilitation and Research Training Centre (ALERT), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she has contributed in a number of roles over five years.

ALERT is a government health institution, which exists as a tertiary referral and teaching hospital, an internationally recognised training centre and is home to the Armaur Hansen Research Institute. With more than six hundred staff, the institute not only provides medical care for patients, but also training, clinical placement and research for health professionals.

Initially, Roberts was involved in the hospital section of ALERT. "I was flat out treating patients because there was simply not enough other trained staff to do so", she said. Since then, she has become an active member of the teaching body, developing and presenting training, and mentoring new staff.

Anne with course participants from Sierra Leone, Niger, Nigeria, Liberia and Ethiopia
Anne with course participants from Sierra Leone, Niger, Nigeria, Liberia and Ethiopia

She is heavily involved in training courses for international students, but also in teaching local staff. "This is much better, as I feel like I'm more likely to make a lasting difference, rather than simply filling an urgent gap", Roberts said.

Although rewarding, Roberts admits the job presents her with constant challenges. Significant difference in the work ethic and teaching methods between Ethiopia and Australia is one major issue. While in Australia, recent HSC leavers might be struggling with accepting university offers, enrolling and buying textbooks, one major factor differentiates them from their counterparts in countries like Ethiopia. They have the freedom to choose which study option and career path they would like to take.

"Physiotherapists in Ethiopia did not choose their vocation or their workplace; both were determined for them by the government", she explained. In Ethiopia, as in many developing nations, leprosy remains an unattractive field to work in. "Our hospital has very young staff with limited experience and varying levels of motivation. They are on low government salaries and in a profession they would not have necessarily chosen".

This also means that many staff members will leave after their compulsory bond period ends. "Sustainably passing on my skills and knowledge is challenging. I could spend my time training up staff, only to have them disappear", Roberts said, highlighting one constant struggle that her role presents.

Anne demonstrating plastering to students
Anne demonstrating plastering to students

In a job that obviously has its emotional highs and lows, Roberts remains motivated and passionate about her position. "I get a huge kick out of training various health workers who come from other parts of Africa and the world, to learn about leprosy,"she said. Many of these workers travel extremely long distances and are eager to learn as much as they can and return to their countries, keen to make a difference in the lives of people affected by leprosy. "I love feeling that I am making an impact, not just where I am, but all over Africa," said Roberts.

Asked what her advice would be to students looking to make adifference, Robert says it's important to remember that we, as Australians, have a lot to offer the rest of the world.

"We really can change the world, one person at a time!"