Global health absorbs scientist

By Sam Hurley

Nobel Prize-winning Australian scientist Peter Doherty focused on major global-health issues during a speech in Hastings last night.

Professor Doherty's Hawke's Bay Opera House appearance was part of his Human Wellbeing and the Challenges Facing Us tour, hosted by Massey University.

He talked of the challenges and advances in modern science that battle pandemic diseases, infection and immunity. Fears of a worldwide pandemic wiping out mankind were over but infectious diseases, such as HIV, would remain a constant health issue.

"We have spent enormous amounts of money trying to find a vaccine for HIV but it may be the case that we never find a cure," he said. "We now understand infectious disease; in the middle of the 19th century we didn't. We should never see anything like the plague again."

Professor Doherty won fame when jointly awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine after he discovered the nature of the cellular immune defence, or how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells.

The work was the foundation for the modern treatment of disease and the development of vaccines and technologies to enable organ transplants and minimise the spread of today's "flus".

The 1997 Australian of the year, dedicated to improving global health, is based at the University of Melbourne. He spends part of his year at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis.

"It [Australian of the year award] put me on the public stage and enabled me to explain and tell people about science," he said. "It's important to draw people in, rather than lecture people about science all the time."

His latest research focuses on the understanding and prevention of influenza virus infection, while also looking at the dangers of other modern epidemics.

"That virus [Sars] gave us a big wake up call, it emerged out of nowhere; at first we thought it was another strand of influenza," he said. "Sars cost about 50 billion bucks [worldwide] so it woke up a lot of politicians to the idea to increase funding on infectious-disease research."

What Birds Tell Us About Our Health And Our World is the most recent of his many books.


- Hawkes Bay Today

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