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November 2004 Issue
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Sophie makes impact in Geneva

It's not every day you get to meet a former US President and work on health programs that could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

But that's exactly the experience University of Adelaide PhD student Sophie La Vincente had earlier this year when she became an intern at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sophie, who is currently finishing her PhD in Clinical & Experimental Pharmacology, spent two months working in the WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

She was chosen for the position based on her academic excellence, and her background in psychology (she graduated with Honours in Psychology from Flinders University) and drugs (thanks to her PhD work at the University of Adelaide).

"In Geneva, I worked mainly on projects related to the management of drug abuse, and in particular the prevention and treatment of health and social consequences that can result from drug use, such as HIV/AIDS," Sophie said.

"Mental health disorders including drug and alcohol abuse can have a devastating impact on families and communities. Such illnesses currently account for five of the 10 leading causes of disability for people aged between 15-44.

"Injecting drug use and the risky behaviour that can accompany it are driving the HIV epidemics in several world regions, including a number of our neighbouring countries in Asia.

"The experience at the WHO gave me a first-hand insight into how these major health challenges are being addressed at an international level. It showed me the difficulties and limitations involved in improving the health of a population, but it also showed me how much can be achieved."

During her time in Geneva, Sophie attended the 57th World Health Assembly held at the UN European Headquarters. This is the annual gathering of world health leaders to determine the direction of world health policy.

"Meeting former US President Jimmy Carter and hearing his address to the Assembly was inspirational. Through the Carter Center both he and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter have achieved some great successes for people struggling with poverty and disease," Sophie said.

Another highlight was hearing the former Director General of the WHO and Prime Minister of Norway, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, give an address on macroeconomics and health.

"It gave me a different perspective on how health, the environment and the economy are inextricably linked," she said.

Sophie has now been offered an internship with a primary health care program for the prevention and management of HIV/AIDS in Mozambique. She is hoping to take up the opportunity after she completes her PhD studies at Adelaide.

"Having participated in the technical activities of the WHO based at Headquarters, I'm now eager to get some field experience so I can see how programs stemming from the research and activities conducted by the WHO are being implemented.

"This will give me a better understanding of the logistics and limitations encountered on the ground in translating the work of the WHO into real benefits for people in need."

Sophie's unique experience at the WHO would not have been possible without the support of a number of sponsors. Support for the Geneva internship was provided by the University of Adelaide's Department of Clinical & Experimental Pharmacology, the Foundation for Young Australians (Youth for Youth Investment Grant), and the Rotary Club of Adelaide.

Story by David Ellis

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Sophie La Vincente at the University of Adelaide
Photo by David Ellis

Sophie La Vincente at the University of Adelaide
Photo by David Ellis

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Sophie at the World Health Assembly at UN European Headquarters, Geneva

Sophie at the World Health Assembly at UN European Headquarters, Geneva
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