Western Alliance Staff and Associates

Staff

Dr Renée Otmar

BA, GradDipEdPub, MA(Communications), MPH, GCALL, PhD

Renée has broad and extensive expertise in health communications research, policy research and writing, and in program development and management. Her research interests include the use of artificial intelligence to improve health outcomes and the communication of risk across the spectrum of health care and disease.

Her early training and qualifications led to roles in public relations, book editing and publishing and, since 2002, to senior roles in the public health and academic sectors. Renée’s strengths are in developing and leading teams, and in analysing, synthesising and tailoring complex scientific and technical data into communications suitable for their intended audiences, across formal and informal settings, contexts and formats.

In her role as Business and Communications Manager at Western Alliance, Renée provides support and advice to the Executive Director and the Board of Directorsl, including policy, planning and implementation, and is responsible for Western Alliance’s day-to-day operations, financial management, communications and staffing. She convenes the Annual Symposium and administers the Centre’s research funding portfolio.

(03) 4215 2896

Emma Smitten Administrative Officer

In her role as Administrative Officer at Western Alliance, Emma brings more than seven years of experience in working with researchers in a university setting. Prior to starting with Western Alliance in January 2016, Emma worked with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention and The CO-OPS Collaboration, overseeing day-to-day office management, the academic exchange program and the professional development and annual workshop events run by the CO-OPS Collaboration.

Emma provides administrative support and advice to the Business and Communications Manager here at Western Alliance, as well as office administration, website maintenance, correspondence and event organisation.

Associates

Dr Campbell Aitken

I spend most of each week working as a freelance editor and writer, but every Friday I resume my long-term role as a senior research fellow at the Burnet Institute.

I started at Burnet in 1995, helping to finish off a pioneering study of blood-borne viruses in people who inject drugs (the Victorian Injecting Drug Users Cohort Study – VICS). From 2008, as my editing and writing work increased, I progressively scaled back my research, but I continue to be involved in a range of projects related to research on the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and/or drug use, and edit much of the output from the Burnet’s Centre for Population Health.

Among Australian research in its field, VICS was and remains unusual for its degree of focus on regional and rural drug users. VICS employed mostly peer interviewers (researchers with intimate knowledge of injecting drug use) to find, interview and take blood samples from people who inject drugs. We recontacted these participants annually to assess behavioural changes and to measure incidence (the number of new infections per 100 people per year) of HIV, HCV and the hepatitis B virus. Our interviewers collected data from people living all around western Victoria and in regional centres including Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Warrnambool.

The Western District proved particularly fertile ground for VICS, due largely to the efforts of Dr Rodger Brough of Warrnambool and Region Drug and Alcohol Centre (WRAD) and research nurse Vicky Hunt. The extensive data they collected enabled us to write an article (with funding from The Ray and Joyce Uebergang Foundation), published in Drug and Alcohol Review in 1999,(1) that is still one of only a few worldwide about non-urban drug users and blood-borne viruses. As noted in a previous In Brief article, we found that people in the Western District who inject drugs (mostly amphetamine injectors) had lower HCV prevalence than their counterparts in Melbourne, but the incidence of infection was higher, suggesting that the epidemic was progressing more rapidly.

Another Burnet project located in western Victoria involved examining risky behaviour among transient farm workers in the Loddon and Mallee regions in mid-2006.(2) We found that 30 per cent of these workers were consuming alcohol at levels considered risky to health, 30 per cent of participants with new partners reported infrequent condom use and 46 per cent had recently used illicit drugs (mainly marijuana). This population presents unique challenges for public health, as it is highly mobile, includes a high proportion of young international visitors who are keen to ‘party’, and is not well linked to local health services.

As a Western District alumnus (born in Warrnambool, lived in Warrnambool and Port Fairy, and schooled for a few years in Ballarat), I’ve enjoyed contributing towards improving the health and wellbeing of western Victorians through my research. Sharing news and information about the latest evidence from health and medical research through Western Alliance is another satisfying way to do so.

References
Aitken CK, Brough R and Crofts N (1999) Injecting drug use and blood-borne viruses: A comparison of rural and urban Victoria, 1991–1995, Drug and Alcohol Review, 18(1): 47–52.
Pedrana A, Aitken C, Higgs P and Hellard M (2008) Blood borne viruses and risk behaviours among transient farm workers in rural Victoria, Australian Journal of Rural Health, 16 (3): 143–9.