Anh War­tel tells Hong Xinyi how in­deli­ble child­hood mem­o­ries as a refugee in­spired her life’s work in clin­i­cal re­search

Singapore Tatler - - CONTENTS -

Dengue ex­pert Anh War­tel on the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind her work in clin­i­cal re­search

Anh war­tel is some­one who al­ways knew ex­actly what she wanted to do in life. “As a lit­tle girl, I al­ready knew I wanted to be a doc­tor, and I never changed my mind,” says the pe­tite pow­er­house, who was born in Viet­nam, grew up in France, and is now based in Sin­ga­pore as vac­cine pro­ducer Sanofi Pas­teur’s re­gional med­i­cal ex­pert for dengue in the Asia-pa­cific. Ful­fill­ing her child­hood am­bi­tion was no easy feat. Anh at­tended med­i­cal school in Paris, where her co­hort num­bered over a thou­sand stu­dents in the first year. Of th­ese, only 170 sur­vived the aca­demic culling to make it to the sec­ond year. This highly com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment was a suit­able start for a vo­ca­tion that de­mands in­tense re­silience. Clin­i­cal re­searchers face daunt­ing odds—a vac­cine can take decades to per­fect and, on av­er­age, only 20 per cent of the drugs in de­vel­op­ment will ul­ti­mately be deemed safe and ef­fec­tive enough for use. “With sci­ence, you need a lot of hu­mil­ity,” Anh be­lieves. “It can be a bumpy road, and you never know if you will suc­ceed or fail. You need to ac­cept that.” Ask her where she got her re­silience from, and she im­me­di­ately points to her fa­ther, who started out as a sur­geon in Viet­nam. Her fam­ily left the coun­try be­cause of the Viet­nam War, spend­ing some time in a Malaysian refugee camp be­fore set­tling in Paris in 1978. Anh was six years old at the time, and she has a vivid mem­ory of sit­ting be­side her fa­ther in the camp as he treated pa­tients. “I can re­call it per­fectly,” she says with a smile. “As a doc­tor, peo­ple re­ally rely on you, and that re­la­tion­ship of trust and the abil­ity to serve peo­ple, that’s the beauty of the job to me.” She also re­mem­bers ar­riv­ing in Paris in win­ter, and see­ing snow for the first time as she dis­em­barked from the plane. (She even asked her par­ents if the swirling flakes were mos­qui­toes, per­haps fore­shad­ow­ing her work with mos­quito-borne dis­eases.) Her fa­ther’s med­i­cal cre­den­tials were not recog­nised in France, so “he had to start from scratch, and go back to med­i­cal school as a 40-year-old with three kids”, she re­calls. His per­se­ver­ance con­tin­ues to in­spire her. Now 80 years old, he is still a prac­tis­ing doc­tor, she says proudly. Anh was sup­posed to take over his prac­tice, but found her­self drawn to clin­i­cal re­search be­cause she felt she could make a broader im­pact. She played an in­stru­men­tal role in lead­ing the team that de­vel­oped the world’s first dengue vac­cine, which has been ap­proved for use in 16 coun­tries, and is now avail­able in 11 of th­ese, in­clud­ing Sin­ga­pore. Her work in dengue has spanned the past 13 years, in­clud­ing five spent in a re­mote area of Viet­nam ob­serv­ing dengue pat­terns among school­child­ren. “Dengue is a very in­trigu­ing dis­ease. It’s caused by four viruses, which con­trib­utes to the com­plex­ity of de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine,” she ob­serves. “This dis­ease has been around for over 70 years, and over 70 per cent of global dengue cases hap­pen in Asia. That is a tremen­dous bur­den on fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and health­care sys­tems.” Now that a break­through has been achieved in the form of a vac­cine, she is look­ing for­ward to turn­ing her at­ten­tion to even more com­plex dis­eases. She worked on HIV treat­ments, in­clud­ing a first at­tempt at a ther­a­peu­tic vac­cine, for a few years in the early 2000s, and “I want to go back to that. I’m not done with HIV yet”, says Anh, who is mar­ried to a fel­low doc­tor and the mother of two boys. The world could well see a HIV vac­cine one day. “A lot of com­pa­nies are look­ing into that, in­clud­ing ours. With an al­liance of re­searchers and sci­en­tists look­ing into the same prob­lem, things can move much faster.” The same goes for dis­eases such as Ebola and Zika, she be­lieves. “We still need a lot of com­mit­ment from sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ments to sup­port the pre­ven­tion of out­breaks and vac­cine de­vel­op­ment. All the vac­cines you are fa­mil­iar with have al­ready tack­led the sim­ple dis­eases. The ones left are the chal­leng­ing ones.”

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