When Timor-Leste voted for independence in 1999, violence erupted in the small island nation. Many Timorese were evacuated to Darwin to escape the withdrawing Indonesian troops.

The Northern Territory Centre for Disease Control (CDC) managed the diagnosis and treatment of evacuees with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and measles.

For epidemiologist Dr Karen Dempsey, this was the beginning of a career finding and tracking viruses – including SARS-COV2, more commonly known as COVID-19.

In 1999, Karen was a research officer working at the CDC analysing data about sexually transmitted and blood borne diseases. She had only been employed at the CDC for a few weeks when thousands of Timorese were evacuated to Darwin.

“The CDC became the epicenter for managing the diagnosis and treatment of evacuees suffering from untreated tuberculosis, malaria, measles and other communicable diseases,” Karen explained.

“I had dual roles in the crisis – both clinically as a registered nurse, as well as data management as a research officer where I managed a database collating important public health data on the evacuees.”

A self-confessed data lover, Karen says that this experience led her to sign up for a Master of Applied Epidemiology (MAE) with the Australian National University (ANU). She completed her degree while completing a placement at the Mount Isa Center for Rural and Remote Health (MICRRH).

“Learning about epidemiology was like someone had switched the light on, it felt like a marriage of my two passions - math and public health.”

Once she finished her MAE, Karen returned to the CDC where she took up a role with OzFoodNet, a national program that aims to reduce the incidence of foodborne disease by enhancing surveillance for foodborne disease, investigating foodborne disease outbreaks and supporting environmental health officers (EHOs) in foodborne disease prevention activities and interventions.

“My role was to setup the OzFoodNet site in the Northern Territory and during the ensuing three years I investigated numerous outbreaks of foodborne disease. The most notable of which was an outbreak of foodborne disease from consuming an imported product,” Karen explained.  

“National and epidemiological evidence from several jurisdictions implicated oyster meat as the source. Lacking a virus to confirm the cause, importers were reluctant to cease importation at the time; however, work done by NT OzFoodNet staff and EHOs eventually led to identification of norovirus, a highly contagious disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea, and led to a complete ban on the importation of oyster meat from the overseas supplier into Australia.”

In addition, Karen was also involved in the SARS epidemic response in 2003. Her role was to monitor the health of passengers travelling into Darwin airport.

“At that time, I had never been involved with a pandemic where transmission has crossed so many international borders and I had hoped to never be involved in another.

“This current pandemic has caused so much loss and heartache across the world, it is critical that we work out where the virus originated and put an end to zoonotic transmissions, both now and into the future.”

In 2015, Karen began working with Menzies part-time for RHDAustralia and lecturing in the Master of Public Health. She gained her Doctorate in Public Health in 2016 with Charles Darwin University - her thesis used a linked dataset to describe the epidemiology of road traffic injuries in the Northern Territory from 1999 to 2007 – and continued to work and teach at Menzies.

Karen took leave from Menzies in 2019 and was in the middle of a dream trip when the COVID-19 pandemic began. During 2018 Karen and her husband were both recovering from cancer and had embarked on a trip around the United Kingdom. They spent their travels catching up with family and visiting places of interest. Husband Mike is a historian, and being an epidemiologist, Karen enjoyed visiting key historical sites pertinent to her work including the village Eyam.

Eyam is famous for the actions it took during the plague in the 1660s. The village stopped people from entering or exciting the village to control the spread. Karen, as you can imagine, is finding the parallels with the current pandemic incredible.

Seeing the similarities, Karen and her husband returned to the NT and since January 2020, Karen has been working with the CDC.

As an epidemiologist, her role has been to assist with preparation, contact monitoring, procedures for monitoring while in quarantine and isolation and now analysing the data on COVID-19.

“The role of epidemiologists is as important now as it was at the beginning, if not more so as we head into the next phase of enhanced testing and contact tracing,” Karen said.

“These measures are crucial once venues open and strict social distancing measures start to be relaxed. We will be working closely with the Commonwealth to trace contacts of cases with the help of data from the COVIDSafe App.”

Karen will return to Menzies in July to teach parts of the new Graduate Certificate of Epidemiology as well as the Master of Public Health.

This certificate is aimed at providing busy health professionals with the epidemiology and biostatistics skills necessary to make informed decisions regarding their current public health programs, proposed interventions or research.

Karen believes that the NT is an attractive place to work for epidemiologists with many opportunities to be involved in research focused on Indigenous health and tropical diseases.

She says that it is crucial to prevent transmission of COVID-19 into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This is an area, where the Northern Territory Government, with the CDC, worked hard to manage travel into remote areas early in the outbreak and develop guidelines for managing transmission in the case of an outbreak occurring in a remote community.

“A big threat to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is their remoteness and inherent potential for delayed access to tertiary services to manage treatment of people who may become critically unwell with COVID-19,” Karen explained.

“Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffer from diabetes which is known from overseas studies to compromise a person’s ability to fight off the virus.”

Karen says her experience with CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic will greatly enhance her teaching and has renewed her passion for the field.

Find out more about our postgraduate degrees here: https://www.menzies.edu.au/page/Education_and_Training/Study_with_us/