Going where he's needed most

March 26, 2015

Edmonton infectious disease pioneer, Dr. Stan Houston devotes himself to preventing illness at home and abroad.

The whole reason for being a physician is to help people. So it makes sense to me that you would go where people need help, whether that’s in Northern Alberta or South Sudan.

Dr. Stan Houston’s first experience with international medicine came during a four-month medical school elective in Zaire. “It was in a one doctor, fly-in bush hospital,” recalls the Saskatchewan born-and-raised physician. “It was fascinating and guided my entire life and career.”

It also highlighted the importance of prevention. “So much of what we were treating could have been prevented. It made me wonder…’Why aren’t we doing a better job of that?’”

In 1987, after completing specialty training in infectious diseases, Dr. Houston relocated to Zimbabwe; a country that was being hit hard by HIV.

“Back then, there were no HIV experts. We learned a lot about the disease and its manifestations, but you couldn’t influence it because there were no treatments.”

By the time he returned to Zimbabwe in 2000 for a one-year sabbatical, anti-viral medications were becoming available. Today, HIV has gone from “being a certain death sentence to being a manageable, chronic condition.”

Throughout his career, Dr. Houston has been involved in several international efforts relating to tuberculosis (TB). He spent 14 years working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in South Sudan on TB prevention during the region’s civil war and more than 10 years working with the Canadian Lung Association to help support Ecuador’s national TB program. His most recent visit to Ecuador was in May 2014.

When he arrived in Edmonton in 1990, his interest in preventative medicine led him to Edmonton’s Streetworks; an innovative needle exchange program. “It’s a fantastic success,” he notes. “We’ve actually seen a steady decline in HIV among injection drug users over the past 15 years because of harm reduction activities like this.”

Dr. Houston commitment to immigrant health motivates his work with Edmonton’s New Canadians Clinic, which serves the approximately 400 government-sponsored refugees who arrive in Edmonton each year.

“Many of these people have never seen a physician,” explains Dr. Houston. “We offer them a basic health assessment to look for health issues and screen for things like TB. We also get kids vaccinated and connect them to referrals where needed.”

In addition to being a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Alberta and director of the Northern Alberta HIV program, Dr. Houston is a faculty advisor to the Students’ International Health Association and a member of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan research centre at the University of Alberta. And he continues his work in Zimbabwe as an external examiner for specialty trainees.

“The whole reason for being a physician is to help people. So it makes sense to me that you would go where people need help, whether that’s in Northern Alberta or South Sudan.”

 

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