As a celebration of one year since launching PH SPOT, we are releasing a blog series titled “Thinking outside of the box: inspiring the next generation of public health professionals”.  To view the entire series, click here.

Inspiring the next generation of public health professionals, with James Flint

This blog features James Flint, an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and my mentor. In short, he’s been such an inspiration for my public health career. You’ll see when you read this piece why that’s the case. He’s been all around the world, working with so many great organizations, taking so many risks, and most importantly strives to make this world a better place. James was my manager almost 5 years ago, and today continues to be someone I go to when I have tough decisions to make with my career or just need to brainstorm an out-of-the-world idea. I am so thrilled to be able to share James’ advice, tips, and thoughts with PH SPOT, with the hope that he also inspires you to think outside of the box and challenge the normal.


Have you always wanted to pursue a career in public health? Can you tell us a bit about your journey into this field?

I didn’t start university with public health in mind. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I started university. And when I graduated, I still wasn’t sure. So, like any good Australian, I took off travelling for a year. I wasn’t particularly interested in tourist stuff, so I headed to Guyana to volunteer at a Children’s Aid Centre and then to India to work with kids and lepers. Shortly after leaving Australia I was offered a scholarship to undertake a Masters of Medical Science. I accepted and didn’t think much more of it until a few weeks before I was due back in Australia. I was in the Philippines and had just finished rebuilding homes after a typhoon when I had a minor crises of my own and decided I just couldn’t go through with my career choice.  I loved working with people and being in the field. I was drawn to helping those who were struggling in life. The thought of spending my days in a laboratory doing research just didn’t work for me anymore. Public health crossed my minds as a possible alternative. In all the place I’d volunteered, public health was a clear challenge and the opportunities to help people through public health was abundantly clear. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I’d stumbled on my career niche. It was a headache pulling out of a scholarship at the last minute and madly enrolling in an MPH, but it was definitely worth it. After my MPH, I ended up working for Health Canada and shortly after completed my first mission with the World Health Organization.

As an Epidemiologist at Hunter New England Health, what does a day at work look like for you?

Hunter New England Health is a local health district in New South Wales, Australia. It is arguably one of the most innovative public health units in the country and is a fantastic place to work. As part of the communicable disease team, I am involved in surveillance, case investigations, outbreak response activities, capacity building, and research. We are also encouraged to think outside the box, take risks, innovate, create disruptive solutions, look for external funding and, most of all, make a difference. So, on some days I’ll find myself investigating a local disease outbreak or reviewing surveillance data, and others I’ll be in Papua New Guinea teaching part of the field epidemiology training program. Rarely are two days alike.

Can you tell us a bit about your work as a consultant for the WHO?

I’ve worked for or with the WHO for many years in several countries. Recently I took two months of unpaid leave to work as the Emerging Infectious Disease Epidemiologist with WHO in Papua New Guinea. During this stint I helped develop public health emergency response plans, conducted outbreak investigations and supported the field epidemiology training program. I’ve also recently worked as a WHO consultant in Jordan and Sudan developing foodborne disease surveillance and response manuals.

You’ve done a lot of global health work with the WHO. Could you tell us a bit about how you got involved in this work and your experience there?

My first experience with WHO was in Kenya as part of a STOP (Stop the Transmission of Polio) team. It was a well-structured program that provided an excellent introduction into the world of WHO. I was based in the Rift Valley and visited hospitals and health centres to assess cases, organise immunization campaigns, provide training and evaluate surveillance systems. Following that, I worked for two years as an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre. This PAHO Centre provided technical support for 21 Caribbean countries and was based in Trinidad. Since then I have done several short term assignments in Guyana, Pakistan, Grenada and Fiji to provide support to WHO following natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and cyclones). This post-disaster response work is extremely challenging and incredibly rewarding.

What has been the most memorable experience of your public health career so far?

One of the most memorable experiences was working with WHO in Pakistan after the 2005 South Asian earthquake. I had been involved in several post disaster response activities prior, but nothing prepared me for the devastation of this earthquake. I was posted to a remote mountainous region north of Islamabad. There was not a single health centre or hospital left standing and over 80% of the health workforce died during the earthquake. We worked with a number of NGO’s to rebuild an emergency health care system, including tent hospitals and operating theatres, and establish a disease early warning system. The disease early warning system detected the start of a measles outbreak in a large displaced persons camp and within 24 hours we had vaccinated every person in the camp and started a mop up campaign in surrounding settlements. It was a phenomenal effort which brought the disease to a standstill. A very rewarding experience.


Reflecting back at your journey into public health, were there specific opportunities/experiences that you look back at today and say “yup, I’m glad I did this because it opened up a lot of doors for me”?

For me, the hardest decisions have always turned out to be the ones which have opened the most doors and provided the best opportunities. Turning down a scholarship and changing my career direction at the last minute; turning down a permanent and safe job one day before I was supposed to start so I could take on a temporary post that offered more scope for international work; accepting the STOP mission with WHO even though I didn’t know anything about polio or the country I was to be based in; deciding to take a leap of faith and start an NGO when my normal job no longer supported my desire for making a real difference; packing up my family and turning in my permanent government job to take up a contract position on the other side of the globe. All were very tough decisions. It would have been so much easier to take the path of least resistance and do the normal and sensible thing and settle for security and normalcy. And that’s fine if normal is what you want; however, if you’re itching to do something different, you’ve got to take the harder and riskier route.

Based on your experiences so far, what specific public health problem would you challenge emerging professionals to think about and take action in, given the resources and technological advancements in today’s world? (If possible, please name three specific problems)

Diarrhoea diseases and vaccine preventable diseases are two areas I find particularly interesting. We know how to prevent most diarrhoea diseases, many of which are waterborne. The challenge lies in lowering the cost of interventions to make them more affordable, understanding the barriers to implementation and scaling successful solutions. When you put infectious disease epidemiologists and engineers in the same room and give them a public health challenge, you can expect something amazing to emerge. On the vaccine side of things, the developments in Nanopatch technology are incredibly exciting and have the potential to revolutionise the way we give vaccines – talk about a disruptive innovation! Imagine a vaccine that can be delivered without the need for a cold chain and administered as easily as placing a sticker on a kids arm. It has the potential to be a total game changer that saves hundreds of thousands of lives.


Given your background and passion for international development, what advice would you give emerging and established professionals interested in getting their foot in the door? Do you have any tips and/or lessons learned you could share?

Look for short term opportunities with reputable organizations or agencies, even if you have to take a leave without pay to pursue them. You’ll get a taste for the work and make invaluable contacts who can open doors down the track. When I did the STOP program, I was told that more than 70% of the participants go on to work with an international organisation. They’re great odds. Being able to add “worked for WHO” on your CV gets you good mileage when you’re starting out. Many national governments have funded volunteer programs that arrange incredible volunteer placements around the world. The UN agencies have internships, although they may restrict your field travel (where the real action happens) and throw administrative work at you (soul destroying). Don’t forget the NGO’s, while they may not carry the same weight as the big UN agencies, dollar for dollar, they do way more good and will generally give you a far better experience on the ground.

Are there articles and/or books that you have come across throughout your career that you would recommend to young professionals starting their career in public health?

If you could give one career advice to emerging public health professionals, what would it be?

Take the harder, riskier and more frightening road.


About James Flint:

Infectious Disease Epidemiologist/ NGO Program manager/ International Development