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Young man on the move

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 4 November 2013

Dr Alessandro Demaio is determined to bring his generation and those younger to the forefront of the fight against non-communicable diseases and global poverty

Remember the name Alessandro Demaio.

The Melbourne-born doctor has seen more of the world than most will see in a lifetime. He is actively pursuing his passion for global health, getting non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on the public agenda and inspiring his generation and the next to become involved in changing the world for the better.

Dr Demaio teaches global health at the University of Copenhagen, the University of Melbourne, and the Charité-Universitätsmedizin in Berlin. He’s just moved to Boston to do postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School for the next 18 months.

He has taught public health in a yurt in the demilitarised zone between Russia and Mongolia while running a national survey on diabetes that helped dictate public health policy in that emerging nation.

His Masters thesis was a public health promotion project with Buddhist monks in Cambodia, most of whom have diabetes, providing baseline screening and a culturally appropriate program of information and education.

He was director of the board of the Asian Medical Students Association, organising five international conferences in the two and a half years he was in charge.

As a Monash University medical student, Dr Demaio spent two weeks a year for four years working in remote Indigenous communities — an experience he describes as “eye-opener number 1”.

And he developed and runs a website — NCDFree.org — with his designer brother Giuseppe. In the past month they have held two TED-like launches for the site in Boston and Melbourne.1

Did we mention that Dr Demaio is just 28 years old?

Given his father, Pietro, is a general practitioner, it is probably not surprising that medicine appealed to the young Sandro, but it was the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that turned his attention to NCDs and other global health issues.

“My father and I went with [a non-government organisation] to provide aid in refugee camps in remote south-eastern Sri Lanka after the tsunami”, Dr Demaio tells the MJA.

“I expected to see a lot of trauma, but in fact most of what we saw were the side effects from untreated hypertension, angina, diabetic ulcers — all because of disruption in access to medications and treatment.

“NCD treatments weren’t seen as part of essential medicines so they got none of the focus. In a sense they were seen as one step beyond humanitarian aid.

“There is a lack of understanding about NCDs, not only in Australia but in the region”, he says. “Poverty tips people into NCDs and makes them worse, gives them a lasting impact.

“Many people think NCDs are the province of rich, white, old, American men but the true face of NCDs is very different. It is much more likely to be young, poor, Asian people who are developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes and other chronic illnesses.”

Dr Demaio hopes to settle back in Australia one day, and while he is content with his current life — “it’s busy but it’s a good life” — he also has a long-term view of his career that may just involve politics.

“Whether that’s globally, or here in Australia, I’m not sure, but I would love to get into politics.”

The current political climate here is one he finds “disheartening” but he is determined to stay focused on the positives.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric and a lot of short-termism”, Dr Demaio says.

“We’ve emaciated the public health and education systems and we’re building cities that are conducive to disease not health — here in Melbourne we have a children’s hospital with a McDonald’s inside it.

“I try every day to focus on the positives.

“It’s important to bring young people into the dialogue”, he says. “I truly believe that my generation and younger — we are the white knights of global health. We’re connected like never before and we’re inheriting a world that’s in bad shape.

“We’ve got a couple more decades to get it right and we have no choice whether we want to or not.”

If given the opportunity to speak with Tony Abbott, Dr Demaio says he would have three blunt messages for the new Prime Minister.

“First, think for the long term. Wake up to the reality of NCDs. He’s at the helm of the Titanic and NCDs are the iceberg. It takes a long time to turn the ship around.

“Second, step up. Government can’t always be about populist policies. At the moment we’re being blindsided by unelected billionaires who have had tax breaks for the past 15 years.

“There needs to be a clear roadmap for why they should be paying a little more tax. Do it right and sell it to the public.

“Third, let’s decide to lead from the front globally and not just follow others. Invest early and strategically when the science tells us to, and start investing in the staples that we’ve been cutting back on — health care, education — particularly early childhood — narrowing the social divide. Make the choices for good health easier.”

It’s a passionate manifesto that Sandro Demaio is committed to wholeheartedly.

“This is why we do what we do”, he says. “I wanted to put NCDs on the public agenda; I wanted to highlight the link between poverty and NCDs; and I wanted to lift the profile of young people and bring them into the dialogue.”

Did we mention he’s just 28 years old?

1. NCDFree.org website: http://ncdfree.org

  • Cate Swannell


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