To say that Professor Elizabeth Elliott is a noted paediatrician hugely underplays her achievements. Her desire to improve health outcomes on a societal level has pushed her beyond healing and into advocacy and prevention.
As she has advocated for safer products, consumer education and more equitable health outcomes for some of our most vulnerable people, she has often been pitted against governments and vested interests including the alcohol industry.
“You have to be pretty thick skinned and stand your ground,” says Elizabeth. “And also remember you’re speaking for people who don’t have a platform to speak for themselves.”
That Elizabeth is a doctor isn’t surprising – both her grandfathers and parents are medical practitioners with exceptional records. One grandfather was an ANZAC instrumental in setting up the mobile medical clinics at Gallipoli in 1915. The other delivered the first surviving set of quads in Australia. Her mother worked with children with disabilities, her father in obstetrics at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Like Elizabeth, they are all University of Sydney alumni.
Following her graduation, Elizabeth moved to the United Kingdom to continue paediatric training and research. When she returned to Australia in 1991, she had some big ideas.
In 1993, Elizabeth started the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit (APSU). Based on a similar model in the UK now used globally, the APSU contacts all Australian paediatricians by email each month, asking them to report selected rare disorders, conditions including congenital varicella, HIV, Rett syndrome and button battery injuries. The APSU has conducted over 65 studies, producing novel national data to assist in the response to emergencies such as the flu pandemic, development of clinical guidelines, policy and legislation, and directions for future research.
Significant as it is, the APSU isn’t her biggest achievement. Some of Elizabeth's most notable work as a clinician, legislative advisor and tireless advocate has been in the research of Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD.
First described in medical literature in 1973, FASD happens when alcohol exposure in utero affects the development of the baby. If prenatal alcohol exposure happens early in pregnancy, it may be visible through physical symptoms, including birth defects and distinct facial characteristics. Exposure at any time in pregnancy may impact brain development leading to invisible signs, like learning difficulties, hyperactivity, poor attention span and poor memory.
FASD often goes unacknowledged and unreported, but Elizabeth's tireless research has helped to bring it to the top of the minds of both parents and clinicians. She chairs the government’s national FASD Advisory Group, developed Australian FASD diagnostic guidelines, leads the FASD Hub and FASD Registry and is a Director of NOFASD, the parent support organisation.
She successfully advocated for a national awareness campaign and a label on alcoholic beverages warning that alcohol use in pregnancy can cause lifelong harm to the baby, which was introduced in July 2023.
“The alcohol industry was very vocal in objecting to those labels, saying they were far too costly, and they were worried about ruining the look of their bottles,” she says, with a strong note of incredulity.
In 2009 Professor Elliott was invited by the Aboriginal women of Fitzroy Crossing in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia to advise them on an emerging problem with local children.
“They were concerned about alcohol use in pregnancy and FASD and were determined to do something about it,” she says.
What sprung from that first meeting in Fitzroy Crossing is remarkable. Training for health professionals, parenting and school programs, community education on the dangers of FASD, a child and family centre, and a reduction in alcohol use in pregnancy. The work led in 2012 to a Senate Inquiry into FASD which caught the attention of government, led to a strategic action plan for Australia in 2018 and brought in funding for FASD clinics and research nationally.
“It was a rewarding journey, especially starting from such a low base, but now we’re probably amongst the world leaders in tackling FASD,” she says.
I love working with children. I love that they want to get better, that their families want them to get better... That's a real opportunity to have an impact on their health for the rest of their lives.
Having been employed by the University of Sydney since 1991, Elizabeth has enjoyed the flexibility that comes with her academic roles. Spurred on by past Chancellor Prof Marie Bashir, Elizabeth has worked in Vietnam since 2004, initially to establish an education program to combat the dire maternal and child health outcomes in remote Dien Bien Phu and now to address high rates of cerebral palsy. At the invitation of the Australian Human Rights Commission, she consulted in paediatrics during the 2014 Inquiry into children in immigration detention and witnessed the harms resulting from detention on Christmas Island and elsewhere firsthand. She is a child health advisor for UNICEF Australia and consultant for the WHO and the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Add into this Elizabeth’s work as a clinician, academic, a member of various boards, mother of three, arts supporter, skier, sailor, squash and tennis player, and you have to ask, what drives her?
“I love working with children” she says. “I love that they want to get better, that their families want them to get better. And the thing is, the majority of children will recover fully. That's a real opportunity to have an impact on their health for the rest of their lives.”
Congratulations to Professor Elizabeth Elliott, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement. Nominations for the 2024 Alumni Awards are now open. Learn more.