Alumni profile: On the medical battlelines

January 1, 2015

Joanna Keenan is at the forefront of helping international medical crises – including the West African Ebola outbreak – through her work with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.

As a press officer, Ms Keenan (BA 2005) said she is proud and humbled to work in Geneva for the organisation, which provides medical care in almost 70 countries across the globe, including conflict and emergency zones.

“Our doctors, nurses and field staff work in projects as diverse as providing HIV and tuberculosis treatment on an outpatient basis to local communities in Malawi, to performing surgery on victims of conflict in Syria, basic medical care in the wake of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and counselling services to migrants in Italy,” she said.

Ms Keenan works on the organisation’s Access Campaign, an advocacy unit of MSF that lobbies for better tools and access to medication for the developing world.

The Access Campaign was set up in 1999 after MSF received a Nobel Peace Prize for highlighting that unsuitable, inadequate and cost-prohibitive medical implements and drugs were being used treat patients in remote and resource-limited areas.

It now addresses harmful pharmaceutical industry practices and advocates law reform to allow affordable access to vital medication.

“At the moment, a big issue we're working on is new drugs to treat Hepatitis C,” Ms Keenan said.

“There are 185 million people worldwide infected with this fatal disease and these new oral drugs will revolutionise treatment and cure people, but the pharmaceutical companies have priced them beyond reach of all but the richest people.

“It's fascinating as it's a repeat of what happened with drugs to treat HIV 15 years ago. Back then, the pharma companies priced the drugs at US$10,000 per person per year and millions in Africa died as they simply couldn't afford treatment.”

Ms Keenan said she had won the job in Geneva over 400 other applicants in 2011 after working with the Australian Red Cross and the National Native Title Tribunal.

She praised her tertiary education at Murdoch University, saying the course afforded her lots of practical experience which was crucial to kick-starting her career.

“It's such a privilege to work for MSF,” she said. “I'm really passionate about what I do.”

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