Shepparton paediatrician helps disadvantaged kids around the world

By Spencer Fowler Steen

For most of us, kicking back on the couch while watching TV with a drink in hand is what comes naturally. But for Dr Andrew Baldi, it's a different ballgame. For him, helping seriously sick and disadvantaged children is his default setting.

It's a calling which Dr Baldi answered back in his early days growing up in Shepparton, a calling which has seen him move to Melbourne to become a leading paediatric haematologist.

And when he's not working at the Royal Children's Hospital or consulting to help COVID-19 patients, you'll find him juggling his PhD on how iron influences the gut microbiome — a project which has taken him to the slums of Bangladesh and back.

Becoming a doctor was something Dr Baldi, 36, set his sights on early as a teenager at Shepparton's Wanganui Park Secondary College.

Having seen how hospitals and the medical profession cared for his brother, Chris — who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair — Dr Baldi said helping children was something he was naturally drawn towards.

“At Wanganui, my teachers and mentors encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. I had some incredibly inspiring teachers who helped me along the way,” he said.

But one teacher in particular still stands out to him.

Andrew Douch, Dr Baldi's biology teacher, got him involved in an international biology Olympiad.

“I went to Belgium to compete against other high school biology students from around the world,” he said.

“The competition started as a soviet USSR thing originating from the Cold War.”

Dr Baldi said he "didn't do very well", but later admitted he received a bronze medal.

After graduating in 2001, Dr Baldi studied medicine at The University of Melbourne before moving to Sydney to complete an internship and specialist training.

In 2016, he moved back to Melbourne to begin work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital where he became a paediatric haematologist in 2018, also beginning his PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Now, he's working on a clinical trial involving children in Bangladesh investigating the impact of iron deficiency and the impact of iron supplements on growth and brain development.

Helping kids: Dr Andrew Baldi with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research team in Bangladesh.

“My PhD is on how iron influences the gut microbiome,” he said.

“Iron has the potential to be harmful in low and middle income countries causing diarrhoea — one of the biggest killers of children under five in the world.

“We’re looking at ensuring that the benefits of iron are really there, and if there are harmful effects on the gut.”

Dr Baldi said the calibre of the research was "amazing", involving the assessment of 3300 children at different times across a year in an area surrounding the capital, Dhaka, where there is a high concentration of poverty.

“The big picture is that childhood malnutrition is a leading cause of children not achieving their potential, and up to 40 per cent of these children are anaemic due to iron deficiency.

“There’s such a lack of evidence on what iron does, but we’re going to be able to see if there are positive or negative associations from this research.”

But with some children given iron, and some a placebo in the double blind trial, Dr Baldi said he did not know the results quite yet.

And piggybacking off the research, Dr Baldi's team in collaboration with its Bangladeshi counterparts, decided to conduct a survey of some of the children's mothers looking at the psychological, social and financial impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Hard at work: A field laboratory in Bangladesh where Dr Andrew Baldi worked in collaboration with Bangladeshi researchers.

“We know that Bangladesh was disproportionally affected during the pandemic, and I think there's a lot of unrecognised effects.

“This research shows the financial effects are really devastating as well as the effects of lockdown on mental health and intimate partner violence.”

Dr Baldi said while there were probably many studies like this this going on, theirs had the advantage of having baseline data going back to 2017 so current circumstances could be compared to then.

The research will be published in one of the world's top medical journals in the coming weeks.

Like almost everyone, Dr Baldi said the pandemic had slowed his work, with his microbiology projects grinding to a halt.

At the Royal Children's Hospital, Dr Baldi has been consulting to help COVID-19 patients with blood complications as well as conducting telehealth appointments combined with his normal ward work.

Under normal circumstances, Dr Baldi visits his parents Cate and Barry, and brother Chris, in Shepparton about once a month as well as his sister, Steph, who lives in Bendigo — visits he said he was missing a great deal.

But for now, Dr Baldi is excited for his team's results to come back next week for his PhD so he can finally see what the implications are for helping children around the world.

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