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For the greater good

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 20 August 2012

Professor Bob Cumming turned his passion for international public health into a job.

Professor Bob Cumming spent the first 20 years of his public health career focusing on the health of older Australians but in recent years his focus has shifted to international public health, a field that has traditionally emphasised diseases of younger people.

The shift began when he had the opportunity to do some epidemiology teaching in Cambodia in 2006.

“I loved working in a developing country, so I decided to immerse myself in international public health to see if I really liked it”, he says.

In 2008, he took a sabbatical from his position as professor of epidemiology and geriatric medicine at the University of Sydney to spend 6 months at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He was professor-in-residence at the Infectious Diseases Institute, where he taught research methods and learnt about HIV and AIDS.

Again he enjoyed the experience of working in a developing country, and realised his background in diseases of older people could be useful.

“Public health in developing countries used to be all about infectious diseases like leprosy and malaria”, Professor Cumming says. “They are still there, but there is a new epidemic of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Being an Australian doctor, I know a lot about those, and saw that I was able to contribute.”

When Professor Cumming returned from Uganda, the University of Sydney was looking for a new head for the Masters of International Health program, and he was soon appointed to the position.

“I was quite lucky to be able to turn my new passion for international public health into my job”, he says.

The role involves developing the curriculum for the course, which is designed for people who want to work in public health in developing countries, and attracts students from around the world.

Professor Cumming also teaches some units in the course, which is part of the School of Public Health, where he has worked for the past 20 years.

His research focuses on the control of non-communicable diseases in Africa, as well as HIV/AIDS in people over age 50, whom research and public health programs have largely ignored, although they are a significant group. Research shows that 14% of people with HIV/AIDS in Africa are over 50 years, equating to about 3 million people, Professor Cumming says.

Along with University of Sydney colleague Joel Negin, Professor Cumming has published five papers on the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS and older people’s knowledge of the disease.

Before developing his interest in international public health, Professor Cumming was involved in groundbreaking studies of older Australians such as the Blue Mountains Eye Study, which he helped design. His PhD and postdoctoral research was in the aetiology of hip fracture and mortality after hip fracture, and he is a leader in this field.

He also leads the Concord Health and Ageing in Men Project (CHAMP), which is a longitudinal study of general health among 1700 men aged 70 and above.

Professor Cumming says he decided to pursue a career in public health because of the potential to affect the health of large numbers of people.

“I’m not sure whether I’ve achieved that, but that’s what attracted me to it.”

He became interested in public health when he spent a year as a GP trainee in the United Kingdom in the early ’80s, where as well as direct patient care, he worked in local population health programs, such as diabetes clinics and immunisation projects. “That was the first time I became aware that there was such a thing as public health. It hadn’t featured in my medical degree”, he says.

When he returned to Australia, he worked as a geriatric medicine registrar while waiting for the Masters of Public Health Program to begin the next year.

Professor Cumming says he rarely misses clinical work, although he did when he was on a ward round in the main teaching hospital in Kampala.

“I thought, ‘maybe I’ll become a doctor again’. There’s just so much need for clinical practice — but then there’s a need for public health as well.”

Professor Cumming’s latest passion is to help develop the public health teaching capacity in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. He visited South Sudan late last year, only a few months after the country gained independence, and is exploring options to develop a public health course in the capital, Juba. (He is pictured above in Juba with Petronella Wawa, principal of the Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery.)

Aside from work, Professor Cumming plays rhythm guitar in a covers band, The Original Faux Pas, with a number of other health professionals, including lead singer Professor Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, who formed the band about 5 years ago.

The band performs up to six times a year at conference dinners and parties and recently played a gig to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the pub smoking ban in New South Wales.

While Professor Cumming has owned a guitar for many years, this is the first band that he has played in.

“After the first practice I thought I wasn’t good enough ... I found it challenging! But I've improved since then and now I love playing in the band.”

  • Sophie McNamara


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