Meet the Locals
04.23.2020

Meet The Surf Coast Locals: Infectious Diseases Specialist Eugene Athan

I’ve known Torquay resident and infectious diseases expert Professor Eugene Athan for many years.

Eugene has been Director of the Infectious Disease Department at Barwon Health in Geelong since 2004. He is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University.

Right now, he’s on the front line with Coronavirus. We recently had a socially-distant chat about his love for the area and what his life is like right now during the current coronavirus threat.

Thanks for chatting to me, Eugene. Have you always lived in Torquay?

No, I grew up in Melbourne. When I finished my infectious diseases training there, I actually moved to South Africa, to a place near Swaziland, for two years. But when we came back to Australia we moved to Torquay, because we wanted to live by the beach. We’ve been based in Torquay 20 years now, and my two kids grew up there which was amazing for them. They’re both now at university.

What do you love about the Surf Coast area?

The lifestyle is great – there’s an amazing balance of being close to city life but also having that beach lifestyle. I never used to surf but I took it up when we moved there, and I do it as much as I can. We also walk our dogs on the beach every day and I run on the beach as well. I also play a bit of golf at the Golf Club, too.

You must be missing all that – I understand you’re based in Geelong right now due to the coronavirus?

Yes, I’m living in an apartment just near the hospital in Geelong. My organisation was happy to support me doing that so I can keep doing the work I’m doing and not expose my family to Covid-19. A new disease outbreak was something we all knew was possible. It has been hard – I am missing my family, but they’ve been very understanding about it. I guess it’s not often we are confronted by a global pandemic!

What are you working on right now, given the pandemic?

I’ve been involved in the Geelong Centre for Research into Emerging Infections, which is a collaboration between CSIRO in Geelong, Barwon Health where I work, and Deakin University. We focus our energies on looking at new diseases emerging from wildlife. One of the things we’re researching right now is why one person with Covid-19 might get severely sick, while another only gets a mild version of the disease. We’re planning to study all the patients in our region with Covid-19 to try and understand why this might happen and look at their host immunity.

We appear to be ‘flattening the curve’ as they say – but what are experts like you worried about in regards to Covid-19 now?

Well, as a nation we’ve responded extremely well to the pandemic. We’ve closed our borders and managed to convince the entire Australian population to distance and minimise the chance of cross-infection or transmission. We’re not really seeing any new, travel-related cases. So the worry is, if people start to relax and become complacent over the next month or two, we would expect a resurgence of the disease. This is the so-called ‘second wave’. If people remain patient for another month, the health system will be as prepared as it possibly can be so we can cater for a trickling of cases rather than an explosion like we’ve seen in Europe and New York.

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Just researching the market?

Do you think what happened in New York and in London could’ve happened here, if we’d responded differently?

Absolutely. No doubt. If we’d been relaxed about it, we would’ve seen an explosion of the epidemic. In England, the first wave was uncontrolled and uncontained – that’s a simple way to describe it. The lockdown came too late to some of those countries.

This isn’t the first big virus you’ve dealt with though…

No, in Africa I was dealing with the HIV epidemic. The amount of HIV AIDS cases I was confronted with was unbelievable. We made a big difference at a national level, starting access to medications and antiviral drugs, so it was an exciting opportunity, while also being quite devastating.

Having lived through that, it must be incredible to see how far the world has come with HIV AIDS now?

It is. It’s now under control, treatable, giving people a great quality of life again. It’s pretty amazing.

We’re all still in lockdown at the moment in Australia due to Covid-19. When do you think life will return to some semblance of normality?

Possibly by September. I think there will be some relaxation of the isolation rules in a month or two, and I imagine by September it may be easier to travel interstate. I don’t know about overseas travel; that’s a very big call for the government to make.

You must be keen to get home to Torquay when this is all over. What’s the first thing you’ll do when you get home?

Hug my kids and my wife. I’m looking forward to a nice family dinner, to celebrate the end of the pandemic hopefully. And I’m looking forward to going for a surf!