Senior Australian of the Year 2020, Professor John Newnham (AM).
Senior Australian of the Year 2020, Professor John Newnham (AM).

Medical marvel recognised

AUSTRALIA'S most outstanding senior in 2020 is West Australian obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham (AM).

The 67-year-old's world-recognised work is in changing the lives of mothers and infants by preventing pre-term birth.

It is the single-greatest cause of lifelong disability and death in children up to age five.

About 8 per cent of non-indigenous Australian babies are born pre-term.

For indigenous people, that rate is close to double.

Professor Newnham has dedicated his career to achieving a brighter future for babies by ensuring pre-term birth becomes a national priority in Australia.

In accepting his award during the celebration of the 60th year of the Australian of the Year honours, Professor Newnham said as an obstetrician he had had the privilege of caring for women with complicated pregnancies and sick babies before they are born.

"As a young medical student, I became fascinated by life before birth and how little was known about events before birth and how they may impact on our health and disease throughout the rest of our lives," he said.

"I believed I had found an undiscovered continent and I have spent the rest of my life exploring it.

"Perhaps of most importance is that consequence of life being cut too short, too early; this is pre-term birth.

"Many of these children will go on to live a normal life, but many others will be left with cerebral palsy, developmental delay or behavioural or learning difficulties at school age.

"Until recently, it was thought pre-term birth could not be prevented.

"However, we have shown in Western Australia that the rate can be safely reduced, improving the lives of many people.

"This requires a whole-of-population, whole-of-geographical region effort which is based on the introduction of new clinical guidelines, education for the entire medical workforce, and education of the entire pregnant population and their families, together with the way we use ultrasound imaging in mid-pregnancy.

"Variants of this program are now being rolled out across Australia, and this is the Australian Pre-Term Birth Prevention Alliance."

Professor Newnham recognises there is no road map to follow.

But, through his leadership, Australia is the first country to have a national program.

The Senior Australian of the Year Award recognises Australians aged 65 and over who continue to achieve and contribute. The award began in the International Year of Older Persons in 1999.

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