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Kidnapping leaves big hole in care

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Dr Ken Elliot. Picture credit: Global Business Solutions Institute

AMA President Professor Brian Owler has voiced concerns for the safety of an Australian couple kidnapped from a health clinic in Burkina Faso, and raised fears the incident will not only disadvantage the local community but could deter others from undertaking humanitarian work.

Dr Ken Elliot and his wife Jocelyn, who have worked as medical missionaries in the impoverished West African country for more than 40 years, were snatched by suspected Al Qaida-linked militants from their home in Baraboule, near Djibo, about 200 kilometres north of the capital Ouagadougou.

Reports suggest the couple, who are both in their 80s, were taken in the early hours of 16 January, and may have been taken hostage for ransom as part of a fierce struggle between rival militant factions.

They were very well known in the area, where they run a 120-bed hospital. Dr Elliot is the only surgeon, and the clinic they established in 1972 serves a population of two million.

In a video published recently for the Friends of Burkino Faso Medical Clinic by Global Business Solutions Institute, Dr Elliot talked of the “enormous need” for care in the area.

In the video, Dr Elliot said there was a great shortage of surgical care in the region, and their hospital treats everything from hernias and bladder stones to tumours.

“You name it, we do it, because there is nowhere else to do it,” he said. “When you look around and see the need, the need is enormous, [but] the rewards are enormous.”

President Owler told ABC Radio the Elliots were among hundreds of Australian doctors around the world performing humanitarian work, often in isolated areas.

“We sometimes hear their stories, but most of the time the stories are not told and they’re really unsung heroes,” the AMA President said. “We should be very proud of the sort of work that these people are doing. They do, clearly, put themselves in danger.”

Professor Owler said that, in addition to fears for the welfare of the Elliots, he was also concerned about what effect their abduction would have on the local community.

“Clearly, he and his wife have been doing humanitarian work in Africa for most of their lives, devoted their lives to heling the local people and, of course, when this sort of thing happens, it takes away a vital resource from these local people,” he said.

In the wake of the kidnapping, Djibo locals have mobilised to demand the release of the Elliots, amid concern that without them local health services will deteriorate.

A local family friend, Seydou Dicko, told the BBC that “he is not only Australian but he is someone from Burkina Faso, someone from our community, because what he did for our community even the Government itself couldn’t do more than that”.

Professor Owler said the incident could also deter others from following in the path of the Elliots and other Australian doctors providing health services for disadvantaged communities in some of the world’s poorest countries.

“I think it probably deters other people from taking up similar work in the future,” he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has said it is working with local authorities to try and locate the couple.

Adrian Rollins