Infectious diseases expert Professor Michael Baker has received almost $5 million from the Health Research Council for a programme investigating the connection between infectious diseases and long-term conditions, something he was planning well prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

The new programme is called SYMBIOTIC: Syndemic Management of the Biology and Treatment of Infections and Chronic conditions.

Professor Baker, University of Otago, Wellington, explains the central idea is that infectious diseases and serious long-term conditions like chronic lung disease and diabetes tend to occur together, known as ‘syndemics’.

“The programme was written in 2019 but the ideas are very relevant to our current response to Covid-19 where the risks of infection and poor outcomes are strongly influenced by the presence of chronic conditions and poverty,” Professor Baker says.

“A major goal of the programme is to better understand the two-way relationship between acute and long-term conditions to improve health and equity in New Zealand.”

In total, the Health Research Council this year awarded $71.58 million to 47 research projects nationally with the University of Otago receiving $26,557,603.

SYMBIOTIC lead researcher Dr Amanda Kvalsvig says the programme will work in partnership with communities, healthcare providers, Māori health providers and policymakers to create practical, effective solutions to break syndemic cycles in a bid to improve health and equity.

“We need a transformational model that can address these complex health issues as a whole, instead of the fragmented approaches that have been used until now.”

Finding the best screening and treatment strategy to eliminate a chronic stomach infection (Helicobacter pylori) to prevent stomach cancer is just one of the areas to be investigated as well as reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in childhood to prevent long-term conditions like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that may be linked to antibiotic use.

A senior Māori researcher in the group, Anaru Waa, says a key strength of the programme is the potential for innovative solutions that combine syndemic approaches with Māori models of health.

“Grounding the research within Māori experiences will help identify solutions for how infectious diseases and long-term conditions can better be managed by and with Māori communities,” Mr Waa says.

The University of Otago’s housing and health research programme He Kāinga Oranga is the other big winner in the latest HRC grants, also set to receive just under $5 million over five years to continue research to maximise the health and wellbeing gains from housing.

University of Otago, Wellington, Associate Professor Nevil Pierse; Distinguished Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman and a multidisciplinary group including researchers from the universities of Otago, Victoria and Massey, BRNAZ and Motu Economic and Public Policy Research will evaluate and scale up existing housing interventions that are proven to be effective and test a suite of new interventions designed to increase equitable health outcomes and enhance New Zealanders’ wellbeing.

Healthy Homes programme co-leader, Associate Professor Pierse, says the research group is very pleased to receive the funding.

“Despite the significant progress made in recent years to improve the quality of New Zealand’s homes through subsidised insulation schemes and energy efficient heating, up to 900,000 New Zealand homes remain unhealthy, with low-income renters most at risk.

“New Zealand’s poor housing quality, particularly private rental housing, has created a large health burden with 28,000 children and 54,000 adults hospitalised each year for potentially avoidable hospitalisations linked to old, cold, damp and mouldy houses.  Most of these affected children come from low-income households with Māori and Pasifika children three and four times over-represented,” he says.

As part of the five-year programme, the research team will work closely with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to measure the impact that new mandatory Health Homes Standards for rental properties, due to be in place from July next year, are having on housing quality, including indoor temperatures, air quality, physical and mental health and mortality. The standards cover improvements to heating, insulation and ventilation and address issues with moisture ingress and drainage.

University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, Professor Richard Blaikie, says the extraordinary strengths of health research at Otago is reflected in these results, particularly from groups that work in areas related to infectious diseases and public health, that are so critical in the current environment.

“The breadth of activity is also remarkable and we thank the Health Research Council for their enduring support across all areas relevant to the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.”

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