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Dr Margot Whitfeld sees to Fiji’s healthy skin

Artarmon local and dermatologist Dr Margot Whitfeld has been instrumental in setting up the first major trial for the safe treatment and control of scabies throughout Fiji. This is an amazing effort considering she, supported by her husband Peter, also deals with a busy dermatology practice, was head of dermatology at St Vincents Hospital, and juggles a busy schedule of two teenage daughters (and two dogs!).

Scabies is a skin mite that causes irritation and infection, particularly in children and can be a life threatening disease. It is very contagious especially within family and village groups but easily treated.

“It is amazing that with all the technologic advances that we have had in medicine, nobody has worked out how to control a problem which affects 300m people, mostly children, worldwide each year, and for which treatment is already available,” Margot said.

Margot was first alerted to Fiji’s scabies problem when she was invited to teach dermatology to a group of local doctors and nurses at an AusAID funded workshop eight years ago.

Since then Margot and Dr Andrew Steer, a paediatrician from Melbourne; researcher Lucia Romani; and many from the local medical community have been working towards this most recent trial.

Their initial survey of more than 13,000 people in 96 villages showed scabies was prevalent in 51% of the four-to-seven age group and 37% in children under three. At this level of infection, the only way to eradicate the disease may be to treat the whole community.

With the help of funding from the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Fiji Ministry of Health’s backing, the first meeting of all the trial staff, local doctors and nurses and researchers was held in March this year, the culmination of years of effort on Margot’s part.

The trial involves a mass drug administration, which is most effective on an isolated population. The team has had to work out logistics to set up the trials on small remote islands and mainland villages that may only have enough fuel to run a generator for two hours a day and access to water is only from a communal water supply - a very different Fiji from its tourist resorts!

This latest $600,000 grant will pay for such things as medication and blood tests, salaries for nurses and researchers, transport and generator fuel.

Margot has been passionate about this issue for the last 10 years and she is very excited to now see it reach this point and with the help of such a capable team and the support of both Australian and Fijian governments.

Margot also regularly volunteers at the skin clinic at Tamavua Twomey Hospital in Suva when in Fiji on her research trips.

There has been local Artarmon support for Margot’s efforts over the years, including a fundraiser and donations of supplies for isolated schools when Margot has visited, at times with her two daughters, Zoe and Emma helping.

by Jane Cozens

Courtesy of Gazette May 2012
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Margot Whitfeld
Margot (L) with researcher Lucia ... force behind Fiji’s healthy skin





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