Researcher returns from Africa sabbatical

Prof Barry Taylor back home in Dunedin. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Prof Barry Taylor back home in Dunedin. Photo by Craig Baxter.
The Ugandan hospital where Dr Taylor worked. Photos supplied.
The Ugandan hospital where Dr Taylor worked. Photos supplied.
A severely malnourished child.
A severely malnourished child.

Returning to the continent where his father was shot by rebels in the mid-1960s was a "personal journey" for Dunedin paediatrician Prof Barry Taylor.

The University of Otago paediatrics and child health researcher recently returned to Dunedin after assisting in a children's ward at a hospital in Mbarara, Uganda. He also taught a paper on child health at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology, where the hospital was based.

It was Prof Taylor's first visit to Africa since leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo, aged 12, "under a cloud". His father Cyril, a missionary, was shot and killed in a hostage camp where the family was held during the 1964 Simba rebellion. In a tragic finale to a happy African childhood, Prof Taylor and his brother "ducked" the shots to escape the same fate.

He felt anxious about returning to Africa, and during his first two weeks it was quite daunting to leave his dwelling. Soon, however, he embraced the "chaos" of Mbarara after the quiet of Dunedin.

He even took rides, without a helmet, on the motorbikes that plied the streets.

He enjoyed the freedom, especially after leaving his role as head of women's and children's health at the Dunedin School of Medicine, after eight years.

He is soon to return to the department as head of children's health. He looked forward to having fewer administrative responsibilities in future.

Determined to do something useful, he did not want to return to Africa as a tourist.

Two months of his five-month sabbatical were spent in Mbarara.

Patients in Dunedin Hospital's children's ward would mostly not warrant treatment in Mbarara, given the severity of need there.

Malaria, pneumonia, malnutrition, tuberculosis and HIV were all common.

Differences with New Zealand were stark. Clinical procedures he normally took for granted, like checking blood sugar, depended on available supplies of medical equipment.

Nursing care was minimal, and patients' families took a lot of responsibility, including dispensing medication, feeding, and changing bedding.

HIV was easier to treat than other diseases, because of international aid money.

He was impressed with the local doctors' knowledge and initiative.

They referred him the more unusual cases for advice - but he was also there to learn.

"I had to learn a lot very quickly."

Prof Taylor witnessed complications of malnutrition he had previously seen only in textbooks.

While the other end of the spectrum was his usual focus as an obesity researcher, the way the body dealt with malnutrition was similar to the effects of overweight people trying to lose weight by eating a lot less.

Obesity was not an issue in Uganda, but it was likely to become one, as in all developing countries.

Middle-class Ugandan children were starting to eat highly processed foods, such as "chips and coke", while the less well-off ate a better diet based on vegetables, meat and fruit.

Before heading to Africa, he spent time at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he collaborated with researchers on electronic tools for GPs for childhood obesity.

He also spent time at Bristol University, and the Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy, which conducts research for Unicef.

Wife Helen Switzer joined him for the European legs of his sabbatical.

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