Agent of change

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A pioneer in the field of HIV and sexual health, Dr Shailendra Sawleshwarkar says they are still taboo areas for Indians in India and in Australia

Even today, well into 21st century, sexual health, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and HIV are hush-hush topics. Although lingering silently at the back of everyone’s mind, one would rather not speak about these topics but brush them under the carpet until it comes uninvited knocking at their door … That’s when panic sets in! Panic at not what would happen to their health but about society’s barbed reprimands and closed views.

The societies in both the developed and developing nations are very slowly changing their outlook to these concealed issues of health and incidentally, and these are the very areas that Dr Shailendra Sawleshwarkar specialises in. A physician and an educator who is passionate about building a capacity of professionals working in this field and developing local and global partnerships to improve health of our communities, Dr Shailendra is a Senior Lecturer and Clinical Academic at the Western Sydney Sexual Health Centre, which provides high quality clinical services in sexual health in Western Sydney and is an internationally renowned research and teaching centre within the University of Sydney. He also coordinates the Master’s program in HIV, STIs and Sexual Health at the University of Sydney.

Hailing from the state of Maharashtra in India, Dr Shailendra grew up in Aurangabad and went to Mumbai to study Medicine and completed his MD from the Mumbai University. During his initial years as a medical trainee, Dr Shailendra saw many patients lose their battle with AIDS. This had immense influence on him as a young doctor and exposed him not only to evidence based practice but also to human rights and equity aspects of health.

Another important milestone in Dr Shailendra’s life was when he was offered the European AIDS Clinical Society’s Scholarship, which opened a flood gate to further opportunities. He moved to Chelsea and the Westminster Hospital in London to further his training in HIV and STIs research.

In 2006, he decided to move to Sydney when he was offered a research fellowship at Western Sydney Sexual Health Centre at the University of Sydney.

“I believe knowledge should have no boundaries, especially due to the very obvious importance of HIV and other STIs to public health in Australia, Asia and other countries worldwide,” says Dr Shailendra, who is passionate about building the capacity of medical and public health professionals in the Asian and in Sub-Saharan African region by developing educational and research partnerships.

When asked about some of the barriers he has faced in his area of work, Dr Shailendra says, “I think geographical boundaries that we have created between countries are one of the biggest barriers. This creates barriers in access to knowledge and developing partnerships.”, but adds that he feels some of these boundaries are blurring with globalisation. “Belonging to a multicultural group has actually been a strength and I have been fortunate to work in a Medical School with an international focus,” he says.

Research, innovation and collaboration have been Dr Shailendra’s pet areas. As an Australian Indian he believes, “I think my prime role as an Australian Indian is being an agent for change and expanding the dialogue between India and Australia. To contribute to the discussion about culturally sensitive health services in today’s multicultural society.”

Dr Shailendra represents Sydney Medical School in University of Sydney’s South Asian Regional Expert group to contribute to the development of collaboration in research and education with Indian partners. As part of the international development of the University of Sydney’s Master’s Program in HIV STIs and Sexual Health, he was instrumental in forming training partnerships with overseas institutions having cross-disciplinary and professional representation from health services, academic institutes and NGO sectors. This led to the development of the Global Intensive Professional Program in HIV (GIPPH). The GIPPH provides a comprehensive, evidence-based overview of HIV/STI prevention and management in a multidisciplinary learning environment, with the creation of diverse learning communities. This program has received funding from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for five consecutive years to train professionals from India, South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As a part of this program, the team has been able to train more than 100 key mid-career professionals in HIV who are now making a difference in Africa and Asia.

“But more than my professional accolades, it’s the little messages from people that really make me feel like what I do is worth it, a patient telling you they feel much better or students who write to let you know their achievements,” says Dr Shailendra.

As a teacher his approach has always been to draw the student’s attention to looking at evidence and making conclusion that are supported by evidence. He agrees that one of the biggest challenges for Indians in Australia is health literacy and adapting to the healthcare system in the new country. Health literacy is not just about health education or being aware about health issues but the ability to participate and act on that knowledge.

Discussion about sexuality and gender issues are important, says Dr Shailendra, and adds that while sex education was non-existent in the Indian education system it is still evolving in Australia. “I work in sexual health and it is still a taboo area for Indians in India and in Australia,” Dr Shailendra says. “The power of communities, of networks, of global partnership, of scientific discoveries and also challenges of working with marginalized communities across the world such as sex workers and members of the gay and transgender communities are what motivate me,” he says.

In terms of his personal life, Dr Shailandra is very much a family man and tries his best to maintain a balance between his personal and professional life. “Having a hot cup of fresh ginger chai in the morning is a great start to the day! And spending evenings with my wife looking at the sunset is a great way to unwind,” he says.

To know more about his work at the University of Sydney’s post graduate program in HIV, STIs and Sexual Health, you can visit http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/wsshc/

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