Australian Dr Andrew Browning granted special travel permit to save starving babies
Australian Dr Andrew Browning granted special travel permit to save starving babies

Top Aussie doctor’s dash to save babies in new COVID crisis

A TOP Australian doctor has been given special government approval to make a mercy dash to Africa after the discovery a whole community of children dying from severe malnutrition.

Dr Andrew Browning will join his aunt who is also a nurse, Valerie Browning, in an Ethiopian desert where she and local health workers are trying to treat thousands of malnourished and starving families.

Dr Browning was spurred into action by photos of starving babies in a crisis believed to be as bad as the devastating famine of the 1980s - only this time the disaster was brought on by COVID-19.

 

Australian Surgeon Dr Andrew Browning AM has completed 7000 African fistula operations in the past, heading back to Africa for a bigger crisis. Picture: Supplied
Australian Surgeon Dr Andrew Browning AM has completed 7000 African fistula operations in the past, heading back to Africa for a bigger crisis. Picture: Supplied

 

The Brownings are a distinguished Australian family, including Andrew and Val, both recipients of the Member of the Order of Australia for their selfless medical work with the world's most underprivileged.

Andrew's father Dr David Browning OAM is an obstetrician and his brother is the now retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn George Browning.

Disturbing images Valerie took of mothers and babies were sent to UNICEF and the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to warn of the crisis unfolding as an unexpected consequence of the coronavirus epidemic, lockdowns, economic hardship, locust plagues and a drought last year.

Ms Browning also sent the images to her nephew, recognised as one of the world's leading obstetric fistula surgeons and currently based in Sydney, who was equally shocked and forwarded her harrowing desert email report to the Home Affairs Department to appeal for an urgent humanitarian travel permit to allow him to help.

"I got approval in 30 minutes," Dr Browning told News Corp Australia yesterday, as he now prepared to make the trip to Africa.

"I just wrote that I've been asked to get over there, this is a worsening situation because of the coronavirus lockdowns and they replied within half an hour that I could go which was quite remarkable, miraculous really."

 

Coronavirus restrictions have seen a crisis developing in the Northern Ethiopian desert in the Afar region of the country. These are the first images to emerge from the area. Pictures: Supplied
Coronavirus restrictions have seen a crisis developing in the Northern Ethiopian desert in the Afar region of the country. These are the first images to emerge from the area. Pictures: Supplied

 

He added: "These tragic, unforgettable photos have been seared into my mind since I received them and they go to highlight the extreme food insecurity being experienced in the Afar region where she (Valerie) works.

"While we worry here in Australia that we can't go to our local pub and restaurant because of

COVID-19 restrictions, people are suffering and dying in other areas of the world as COVID-19

restrictions cripple normal services."

Father of two Dr Browning, who is globally renowned for his pioneering work in fistula surgery and lectures all over Europe and the US, said he saw a similar crisis in 2014-15 in Sierra Leone where an ebola outbreak saw strict movement restrictions and dire conditions particularly for women facing maternity.

 

Nurse Valerie Browning has spent decades in Africa helping the underprivileged. Picture: Supplied
Nurse Valerie Browning has spent decades in Africa helping the underprivileged. Picture: Supplied

 

"I was one of the first ones back in there after ebola restrictions lifted and we saw a huge surge in fistulas patients," he said of the potentially deadly childbirth injury.

"One conservative estimate was there were 3600 extra maternal deaths caused by the lockdowns to contain ebola and the women could not get to hospitals … we are starting to see that on a wider scale around Africa with coronavirus lockdowns."

 

Australian surgeon Dr Andrew Browning AM operating in Africa, has made numerous trips to the continent to help. Picture: Supplied
Australian surgeon Dr Andrew Browning AM operating in Africa, has made numerous trips to the continent to help. Picture: Supplied

 

Dr Browning said there were already more than 2000 women being treated in their villages or in a hospital that he and his aunt founded and run, currently being given food supplements so many of them just have the strength to give birth.

"It seems the gains that the world made to counter maternal deaths has been taken back two decades largely because the coronavirus lockdown has been in place and women can't or are afraid to get to hospitals to have their delivery," he said.

Dr Browning runs the Barbara May Foundation, named after his grandmother, to support the work they do in maternal care in sub-Saharan Africa notably Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

 

Doctor Andrew Browning with his aunt nurse Valerie Browning
Doctor Andrew Browning with his aunt nurse Valerie Browning "somewhere in the desert". Picture: Supplied

 

Dr Browning normally makes five or six trips a year to Africa to perform surgeries but a planned trip in April was thwarted by COVID-19, sending 90 women due for surgery home which he said was heartbreaking.

Last week, a single businessman donor in Australia donated $50,000 to support the Brownings' work and when a friend in the UK heard Dr Browning would be returning to Africa, he sent him a cheque for $3000 to pay for the likely mandatory hotel quarantine bill he will face. Much of the food supplements being given now to 2000 severely malnourished mothers is funded by donors from Australia.

 

One of the first images to emerge last week and now sent to authorities of the evolving crisis in the Northern Ethiopian desert in the Afar region of the country. Pictures: Supplied
One of the first images to emerge last week and now sent to authorities of the evolving crisis in the Northern Ethiopian desert in the Afar region of the country. Pictures: Supplied

 

Ms Browning said via email what was happening now in the Afar region was horrifying not just with starving children but also with malnourished pregnant and post-natal mothers.

"This is more than likely just the tip of the iceberg, in this area which is the hottest habitable place on Earth where the temperature regularly reaches 50 degrees Celsius," she wrote. "The Ethiopian Government is doing all it can but it of course is focusing on containing the COVID-19 virus."

Dr Browning first worked in Africa in 1993-94 assisting in refugee camps in Tanzania during the Rwanda genocide crisis. That began a lifelong affinity and dedication to the African continent.

"There is much that I can do as a doctor and I am desperate to get back, he said yesterday.

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Originally published as Top Aussie doctor's dash to save babies in new COVID crisis


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