Last month the Academy of Athens conferred Professor Aristidis Krilis as a Corresponding Member from Greeks abroad in the field of “Medicine” in the First Class of the Natural Sciences.
Prof. Krilis’ in an expert in infectious diseases, immunology, and allergy – areas of paramount importance, especially considering recent global health crises of COVID-19.
His knowledge enables him to diagnose and treat diseases, including but not limited to TB and HIV.
Prof. Krilis’ journey to global recognition as a physician and scientist has been a hard-fought battle. Like many immigrants, he was driven by the absence of privilege to pursue excellence.
He arrived in Australia in October 1955 at the age of seven, with two siblings, a brother, and sister and his parents. The family left Greece on a ship called Tasmania.
“Many Greeks came over on World War II ships purchased by Greek shipping magnates from the British Navy, who had used them as carrier ships in the War.”
He remembers the trepidation he felt as a child when the ship, “the Tasmania, had engine troubles three or four times.”
It was the Tasmania’s last journey and once the ship returned to Greece, “it was cut up as scrap metal.”
“We sailed through the Suez to Melbourne, and from there we travelled by train to a migrant hostel in Townsville, QLD.”
Like many migrants, his father was in shock when he first saw the migrant hostel, as they had envisioned Australia as a modern nation to counter the poverty and chaos of post-war Greece. “He could not bear the migrant hostel having grown up and spent all his life in Athens.
“When he saw the conditions in this migrant camp in Townsville, he left for Sydney to find a new place for us.”
Prof. Krilis faced significant challenges such as struggling with English and racism as the only migrant child in his class at Stanmore Infant School. Despite the obstacles, Prof. Krilis excelled academically.
He completed his undergraduate medical training at the University of New South Wales, followed by his clinical training at the renowned Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He obtained his PhD from The University of Sydney.
Prof. Krilis persisted in his goal of becoming a physician despite the barriers faced by Mediterranean migrants in post-war Australia.
“Through my primary school, high school and even at university, there was overt racism.”
“I see racism today against other migrant groups, but it was quite widespread and overt when I was a young man in the 60s and 70s.”
Racist labels such as ‘wog’ motivated him to strive for excellence. “That’s the way to answer racism – not to get abusive or get even – but to go further, to excel and work harder, which a lot of Greeks and other migrant groups have done in Australia.”
Prof. Krilis shifted from clinical medicine to research and immunology after being inspired by Emeritus Professor Basten. Under his guidance, Prof. Krilis pursued a four-year PhD.
He worked with Prof. Basten, at University of Sydney and under the supervision of Prof., Basten, Dr Krilis’ focused “on the allergens of the house mites.”
Dr Krilis received an Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council or NHMRC fellowship and a Forgarty International Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship (USA), which allowed him to conduct research at Harvard Medical School where he maintains connections and goes back for sabbaticals.
After his post-doctoral fellowship, Prof Krilis spent a year establishing the Immunology and Infectious Diseases department at Sydney University’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
“The research facilities were basically an empty laboratory, so zero, I established a national and international renowned centre of research excellence at St George Hospital.”
“My drive, love of medicine and love of laboratory-based research where you use different methodologies and approaches inspired me to undertake a career as a Physician scientist.”
Prof. Krilis says he “fell in love” with medicine and science and is “very active in both clinical medicine and science.”
As a professor, he has supervised 18 PhD students and in unbridled pride, he says that many of these “PhDs have gone on to be Professors of Medicine and research scientists at prestigious universities.”
Due to his work, Prof. Krilis receives numerous invitations to speak at universities and scientific conferences around the world.
“In June I’m going to give a talk at Stanford University, University College London, and Athens University.”
He has been a visiting professor at the University of Athens for the past 30 years.
“I have completed sabbaticals at the University of Athens with Professor Moutsopoulos a world-renowned physician scientist in autoimmunity and a colleague, friend, and member of the Academy of Athens.”
Prof. Krilis has established ongoing collaborations with his peers at University of Athens such as, Professors Moutsopoulos, and Vachoyiannopoulos
“I have published a number of important papers with them in autoimmunity, allergies, infections and on clotting disorders”.
Professor Moutsopoulos was the one that nominated Dr Krilis for membership in the prestigious Academy, citing his international reputation and notable achievements.
“It’s a long process!” Dr Krilis exhales.
Prof. Krilis obviously unfazed by obstacles described the rigorous process followed by the Academy’s scientific committee when considering a new nominee.
First the committee comprises scientists of global repute, big brains. An exploration of the nominee’s CV is conducted, followed by referee reports then a panel of scientists decides on the merits of the application for approval.
That’s not the end as the application is then subjected to a vote by the entire Academy – which encompasses medical scientists, physicists, chemists, and representatives from the arts.
Prof. Krilis is cautiously sanguine about the level of excellence and ongoing development in the fields of medicine and sciences in Greece but is quick to point out the many shortcomings of the country’s public health system.
“There are many excellent young physicians that have trained overseas and are going back to Greece; but the public Greek hospital system’s infrastructure is dilapidated.”
“It needs dramatic reforms.”
He blames successive governments in Greece for not investing “sufficient funds into the public hospital system.”
“I went as as a medical student in 1972 to Athens Medical School for three months and visited many hospitals.”
“I returned 30 years later, and nothing had changed. Private hospitals, like the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre, is very good, but it’s very expensive.”
Professor Krilis shared a story that will resonate with many Greeks of when a patient was stuck in the ICU for three months, and due to a shortage of staff and appropriate antibiotics, the patient’s wife had to stay in the hospital to care for him.
“The hospital eventually instructed her to go to a private pharmacist to purchase the necessary antibiotics, an unacceptable situation.”
Australia, Prof Krilis says has an “exceptional public hospital system, renowned globally as one of the best healthcare systems.”
“In my view, the public hospital system in Australia is recognised as one of the best systems in the world and in my opinion is superior to the private hospital system.”
Prof. Krilis’ department at St George Hospital, manages all the COVID19 patients. At the peak of the pandemic his department managed “140 patients per day.”
The scientist and expert on fields of infectious diseases, immunology, and allergy does not pull his punches when it comes to Greeks and others discounting the danger of COVID19.
Many Greeks and other migrants, Prof Krilis say, “hold very strange ideas about COVID and COVID vaccinations.”
“I observe through my work that Greeks, and other migrant groups are not being vaccinated as much as the general population.”
Prof. Krilis says often older generations of migrants are influenced by younger family members.
“Conspiracy theories become like a religion and it’s hard to know what to do. It’s a belief system not based on fact or science.”
As far as Covid19 he says, “People have prejudices and listen to nonexperts that proliferate on social media and it’s a major problem.” The scientific reality of Covid19 as the clinical condition caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is something Prof Krilis deals with.
“The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a coronavirus and there’s a whole family of viruses in the coronavirus family, SARS-CoV-2 is one member of this family.”
Prof. Krilis points to “four coronaviruses that have been circulating in our communities for many years.”
“When patients are infected with these coronaviruses they cause mild disease in contrast to SARS-CoV-2 which can cause severe disease and death.”
The professor says that the virus “is going to be around for a very long time.”
“It has become endemic because a lot of people have been infected, a lot have had vaccinations that protect patients from sever disease and death.”
The current strain, Omicron, “is less severe than the previous strain, Delta.” He says it is not as simple as having “annual vaccinations for COVID-19 like we do for Flu” and explains that vaccination frequency depends on various factors like age, obesity, medical conditions, and immune system suppression.
Those over 70 and with immune deficiencies may need yearly immunizations, while healthy individuals under 50 and young children may not require an annual shot.
“These are important questions we must answer by doing clinical research because the SARS-CoV-2 virus is changing, and vaccines will have to be modified to be effective against these new SARS-CoV-2 variants.”
Intolerances and allergies have become increasingly familiar to people, yet Prof. Krilis advises that not all intolerances indicate a true allergy caused by IgE antibodies, which can lead to severe reactions.
He explains that “true allergies are caused by IgE antibodies and can result in severe reactions, such as breathing problems and dangerously low blood pressure.”
“Around three per cent of children have food allergies, with peanuts being a common allergen.”
He adds recent studies suggest early peanut introduction to infants may be beneficial, and it is unclear if previous advice to avoid certain foods has contributed to allergies.
Prof. Krilis stands out as one of the exceptional individuals whose passion, tireless efforts, unyielding resilience, and commitment to the pursuit of scientific excellence sets him apart from most.
As a new Corresponding Member from Greeks abroad in the field of “Medicine” in the First Class of the Natural Sciences in the Academy of Athens, Prof. Aristidis Krilis has concreted his position as a pioneer in the realm of infectious disease research garnering recognition in Australia and Greece for his contributions to the field.
His dedication has undoubtedly bolstered the global knowledge bank in this critical area. Additionally, Prof. Krilis serves as an example of the opaque ‘migrant dream’, embodying the pursuit of success in the face of adversity.