Associate Professor Catherine O’Connor was awarded the ASRHA Distinguished Services to Sexual Health Award at the 2022 Joint Australasian HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health Conferences last week. She is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Sexual Health Program at the Kirby Institute.
In a career spanning over 25 years, A/Prof O’Connor has worked as a sexual health clinician and researcher to improve health access and care for those with STIs and HIV.
As Director of Sexual Health in the Sydney Local Health District between 1996-2019, A/Prof O’Connor worked as a specialist in a small clinic, Livingstone Road Clinic, which was the only sexual health clinic in the Sydney LHD but had the second largest HIV case load in Australia. In her oration accepting her award, A/Prof O’Connor reflected that sexual health lacked political traction in those earlier years, and so she dedicated her career to bolstering the extent of services available, whilst crucially working to destigmatise HIV and sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
Over the course of her career, A/Prof O’Connor was involved in the introduction of antiretroviral therapy – a lifesaving revolution for people living with HIV – as well as the introduction of highly sensitive PCR testing for gonorrhoea, chlamydia and syphilis. During her presentation at the conference, she said, “Before that, chlamydia testing was not much more accurate than rolling a dice!” The implementation of express STI screening services for asymptomatic patients provided free, rapid and accessible STI testing for many high-risk people. Identifying these infections meant that they could be treated, and onward transmission prevented.
A/Prof O’Connor was also closely involved in the EPIC-NSW trial. She led the development of a rapid recruitment system for the NSW statewide trial of PrEP, the HIV prevention medication, from the clinic side. Through her roles at ASHM, A/Prof O’Connor has been involved in training S100 prescribers, GPs, and nurses in the delivery of HIV and STI care, which is where she said she “discovered my passion for teaching”. This work has taken her to Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste where she mentored and delivered training and service development. “In the PNG Highlands, most HIV and STI clinical care is provided by Generalist Community Health workers who are ‘barefoot doctors’. These workers have at best a couple of years of secondary education, two years of Community Health Workers training, and one week of HIV prescriber training. And they do a fantastic job and implementing the WHO guidelines on HIV care. International development in HIV and STIs has become a passion for me for the last 13 years, and it still drives my working life,” she said.
For the last three and a half years, A/Prof O’Connor has been the United Nations Development Program HIV & STI Medical Specialist for HIV in 11 Pacific Island Countries. This program provides HIV and TB diagnostics and treatments, in-country HIV and STI clinical training and clinical mentoring, and specialist HIV/STI clinical telemedicine advice. When COVID-19 arrived, much of her work moved online, through telehealth and webinar training. This highlighted the need for high-speed internet accessibility. “By 2020 high speed internet was available in the Pacific, just in time to meet the challenges of COVID-19. Reliable internet was now available, and revolutionised communication across the Pacific.”
A/Prof O’Connor has also served as President of the RACP Sexual Health Chapter. In this role, she promoted awareness of the syphilis epidemic in rural and remote Australia, as well as leading the development of sexual health medicine as a specialty. More recently, she has represented the Sexual Health Chapter at the RACP Council and worked with the RACP on gender equity in medicine.