Australian volunteers strengthen public health in Cambodia

Two Australian volunteers worked with the United Nations (UN) World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia as part of the Australian Government’s Regional Health Security Initiative. Stephanie Wheeler volunteered as a Technical Officer (Health Security) and Yasmin Lisson as the Epidemiology Officer between July 2017 and July 2018, as part of the Australian Volunteers Program.

Yasmin Lisson visiting a health centre on an outbreak investigation.
Australian volunteer Yasmin Lisson (right) visits a health centre on an outbreak investigation in Cambodia. Supplied: Yasmin Lisson
Stephanie Wheeler on a boat headed to the forest to find malaria cases.
Australian volunteer Stephanie Wheeler heads to the forest to find malaria cases. Supplied: Stephanie Wheeler

Health security is a really interesting area, because it looks at disease as being more expansive than simply pathology; it is the intersection of disease within the complex web of economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and religious factors in which we live,” says Stephanie.

“It’s looking at the fact that a pathogen can move from one side of the world to the other in less than 24 hours; that the world is becoming simultaneously larger and smaller, and how we mitigate the impacts of this in terms of health,” she continues.

In Cambodia, WHO works alongside the Ministry of Health (MoH) to strengthen capacity for the prevention, surveillance, detection, reporting and response to public health events.

Stephanie and Yasmin worked with MoH to implement of a range of systems and activities, including developing guidelines and risk communication plans, initiating the new Incident Management System, and supporting the annual review of the International Health Regulations and Cambodia’s National Work Plan.

For Stephanie, an assignment highlight was “having the opportunity to join a team of malaria experts to reach forest-workers at risk of malaria in remote provinces.” For Yasmin, it was working as a supervisor in the Field Epidemiology Training Program.

Yasmin reflects on the strong relationships she formed with colleagues at WHO:

“My colleagues are fiercely passionate people,” she says. “They love what they do and are a driving force behind many of the major initiatives in place to strengthen Cambodia’s health system. They come from a variety of professions yet are all equally dedicated to ensuring Cambodians have access to quality health services where and when they need it.”

Stephanie Wheeler and Yasmin Lisson at the WHO office Phnom Penh
(Left to right) Stephanie Wheeler and Yasmin Lisson at the WHO office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Supplied: Stephanie Wheeler
Australian volunteer Stephanie Wheeler in Cambodia
Stephanie Wheeler on assignment in Cambodia. Photo: Stephanie Wheeler

Stephanie had a similar experience with her colleagues at WHO:

“I’ve learned a lot of technical things from my colleagues, but what I’ve enjoyed most is the support and camaraderie amongst our team. Our work can be difficult and stressful, but we always make time to have a laugh and take care of each other as people first.”

Both Stephanie and Yasmin say that being a woman in the health sector was one of the biggest challenges they faced while volunteering. Cambodia is a patriarchal society and the health system remains the domain of male doctors.

Stephanie and Yasmin had to work hard to build relationships and trust, demonstrate technical expertise in their work, and commitment to strengthening the public health system. Despite this, both Stephanie and Yasmin say their experience was overwhelmingly positive.

“I believe assignments like mine help establish strong links between WHO and the Australian Volunteers Program, which paves the way for more Australian volunteers to take up positions in future,” says Yasmin.

Stephanie says the experience has made her a more passionate advocate for women.

“I’m really passionate about seeing women in leadership, and committed to advocating for my female colleagues in pursuing decision-making roles of influence in their public health careers,” she says.


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Stephanie Wheeler with colleagues in Cambodia
Australian volunteer Stephanie Wheeler with colleagues at the WHO office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Supplied: Stephanie Wheeler
Woman in Cambodia
Community member She Horn in Battambang, Cambodia. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono