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Erin's fascinating journey over that time
has seen her work as a pharmacist for a
range of organisations in the Solomon
Islands, East Timor and most recently,
Swaziland. Four years is a long time
and she was close to tears as she finally
slumped into her aeroplane seat in
Johannesburg before Christmas bound
Her emotion stemmed from a mix of
exhaustion, regret at leaving friends
and colleagues in southern Africa and
excitement about seeing her family
again back in Australia. It had been an
epic four years and a heroic effort -- but
one that was as draining as it sounds.
Erin first worked overseas in the
Solomon Islands as a volunteer
pharmacist with Australian Volunteers
International from 2007 to 2009, before
returning to Honiara in early 2011 with
her husband. There, she worked for
Aspen Medical, before heading to East
Timor with the same group, running
pharmacies in police and defence bases
as part of international relief efforts in
those two countries.
Following those stints, she worked for
the World Health Organization back in
Solomon Islands for 12 months before
accepting a role with the Clinton Health
Access Initiative in Mbabane, Swaziland
Swaziland is a small, beautiful country
wedged between South Africa and
Mozambique, famous for its enduring
absolute monarchy -- one of the last of
its kind in the world. Over the past two
decades Swaziland has gained headlines
for having the highest HIV rate in the
world. Its life expectancy -- amongst
the lowest in the world -- languishes at
49 years, whilst the HIV rate in adults still
hovers around 26%. The Clinton Health
Access Initiative (CHAI) has offices there
and in over 30 countries around the
world. Erin worked as an associate in the
Access to Medicines program.
The CHAI has been hugely successful at
promoting access to medicines across
the developing world, applying business-
oriented thinking to problem-solving in
development. It is credited with playing
a significant role in lowering the cost of
anti-retroviral therapies (ARVs) and HIV
testing globally by up to 80% since 2003
and in Swaziland, this has borne fruit.
Around 90% of sufferers now receive
treatment in the country, whilst more
than 300,000 people are tested each
year. The life expectancy has risen from
as low as 31 at the height of the crisis,
to 49 today.
Erin worked with clinics and the central
medical stores to improve pharmacy
services and represented CHAI in the
development of new HIV Guidelines for
the country. It was hard, frustrating work
-- especially given her husband Michael
remained in Solomon Islands for much
of the year, completing some projects
before joining her in mid-2014.
Of course, overseas volunteer work has
its advantages. Swimming alone with
dolphins in the Solomon Islands or driving
from Mbabane to the Kruger National Park
to see enormous herds of elephants are just
two of the fringe benefits.
Erin is part of a small but dedicated group
of Australian pharmacists working in
development across the world. At any
given time, up to a dozen Australian
pharmacists or more can be found
working in environments as diverse as
Fiji and Tonga, to Laos and Vietnam; from
Sri Lanka and India to Sierra Leone and
elsewhere across Africa.
Many of them start as volunteers through
AVID and AVI before moving onto roles
with groups such as PACTAM (DFAT),
Save the Children, the Burnet Institute,
WHO or Marie Stopes. On any day they
might find themselves managing an
annual drug tender for an entire country,
developing treatment guidelines and
essential medicines lists or training
young local pharmacists in up-to-date,
contextually relevant clinical practice.
It's an exciting world but a stressful one;
the pharmacists work in tough conditions,
often in unstable environments, with
the threat of tropical disease, loneliness,
funding cuts and civil unrest sitting
constantly over their heads. It can be
worth it though; the Solomon Islands
Essential Medicines List, developed by
Erin in 2008, is now in its 4th edition.
Another innovation by a Solomon Islands
predecessor, Tash Martin -- a quarterly
health newsletter for nurses and doctors
in that country is still going strong. Almost
40 editions on it is now distributed to over
600 people four times a year and fully
produced by a young local pharmacist
who runs the Medicines Information
Centre set up by Tash and Libby Wrench
(yet another Australian pharmacist).
More broadly, 8.2 million people
globally now have access to HIV/AIDS
treatments thanks to CHAI alone -- the
work of thousands of people like Erin,
Tash and Libby who are prepared to bear
the isolation of overseas work to bring
pharmacy services to the most vulnerable
communities in the world.
Pharmacists interested in development should
visit: www.australianvolunteers.com.au or www.
australianaidvolunteers.com.au for current roles.
It had been 18 months since Erin
Nunan set foot in her home town,
Melbourne, and almost four years
since she lived there.
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