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What were Ken and Jocelyn Elliott doing in Burkina Faso? Making a difference

A couple caught up in a power play by jihadists are part of a league of Australians who have made their way to Africa to provide healthcare.

The kidnapping of Western Australian doctor Ken Elliott and his wife, Jocelyn, in west Africa is tragic. They have been running a medical clinic in the town of Djibo​ for more than 40 years, providing critical health services to the people of that remote border region. We all hope for their safe release. But hearing the news of their capture led many of us to ask: just what are two 80-year-old Aussies doing in rural land-locked Burkina Faso anyway?

It turns out the Elliotts are not alone and, indeed, are not that rare. Australians are dotted throughout Africa, improving the health of the people of Africa as clinicians, surgeons, public health officials and educators – quietly making a critical difference to millions of lives and representing the best of what Australia has to offer to the world.

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Inside Ken and Jocelyn Elliot's hospital in Djibo

The hospital that the kidnapped couple set up now has room for 120 patients and is the only reliable surgical service for up to 2 million people. Credit: Global Business Solutions Inc.

Many Australians would know of the exploits of Dr Catherine Hamlin, who, along with her late husband, Reg, has spent more than 40 years in Ethiopia fixing debilitating obstetric fistulas and building the capacity of the Ethiopian health system to address this health challenge.

The Elliotts and Hamlin are but two of a wave of Australians. The Victorian public health champion Rob Moodie is in Malawi, spending two years teaching at that country's leading medical college. The leaders of the global response to Ebola were Australian, including the head of UNICEF's Ebola unit and two of the most senior World Health Organisation officials tasked with stopping that tragic epidemic.

To most Australians, Africa is a distant place full of wonder and the unknown, but generations of Australians have made contributions to wellbeing across Africa. Where I teach at the University of Sydney, a large number of our public health graduates have made their way across the Indian Ocean to support health services in communities, capital cities and refugee camps.

Australia has also made an additional indirect but catalytic contribution. African graduates of Australian universities – versed in the public health training and ethos of Australia – have returned home to make remarkable contributions to the health of their people. I am routinely in wonder at their accomplishments – from a Nigerian graduate providing some of the only medical services to those in north-eastern Nigeria displaced by Boko Haram's reign of terror, to a group of Australian-trained Mozambicans leading that country's Ministry of Health.

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It is important to note, however, that the flow of improved health services is not one-way: Africans play a vital role in the health and wellbeing of the people of Australia. In addition to thousands of African nurses and aged-care workers providing services in Australia, 6 per cent of all doctors in Australia were Africa-born, including 10 per cent in Western Australia. Many rural communities rely on African doctors in a fashion not dissimilar to the reliance of the people of Djibo on the services of Dr Elliott and his wife.

As the Australian government recently slashed aid to Africa from $231 million to $32 million, one might think this would signal the demise of the relationship between Australia and the countries of Africa. But the reality tthe Elliotts and countless others demonstrate is that the ties between the two continents are as strong as ever and growing. The 350,000 African-born people in Australia and the legions of Australians in Africa attest to the opportunities for greater connections.

Let's not let the horror of the Elliotts' kidnapping shadow their immense contributions, nor should we permit the kidnappers their goal of destroying the ties between the people of Africa and the people of Australia.

Joel Negin worked on health programs in sub-Saharan Africa and is now acting head of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

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