Health Select Committee findings thoughtful and thought-provoking

December 2013

Recognition by the Parliamentary Health Select Committee of the vital importance of early childhood, pre-conception and pregnancy care research is a heartening endorsement of ten years of effort by Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development, says director Professor Phil Baker.

“I was very pleased to read the findings of the report. Paul Hutchinson and his colleagues have produced a report that is thoughtful and thought provoking,” Prof Baker says. “They should be applauded for a series of pertinent conclusions that are highly relevant to ’s future health. This report highlights the necessity of Gravida’s ongoing dedicated research and education in this area.”

The committee recently published its report on improving health outcomes and preventing child abuse, calling for the government to “put more focus on, and investment into the pre-conception period to three years of age, and to take a proactive, health-promotion, disease-prevention approach to improving children’s outcomes and diminishing child abuse.”

The report makes more than 130 recommendations after noting well over half of ’s current health budget is spent on the last two years of life. It advocates “investing an equitable share in the very early years of life where there is clear evidence that it is most effective.”

The report also emphasised the need for science-based evidence: “The evidence is very strong; the first few years of life from pre-conception are fundamentally important for a broad range of child health outcomes, and for the achievements of children as adolescents and adults. The greatest gains and cost savings will come from effective evidence-based early intervention.”

This focus on early disease prevention, even in the pre-conception period, will greatly reduce the instance of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in later life, resulting in considerable social and economic benefits to .

Gravida was one of seven Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) established with the help of government funding a decade ago to encourage top scientists from institutions across to collaboration in key research areas. Gravida’s research mission is to reveal how conditions encountered in early life affect the way an individual grows and develops throughout life.

Prof Baker says Gravida has already conducted significant research into many of the areas recommended by the committee, including the areas of early intervention, pre-conception care, nutrition, obesity, and related non-communicable diseases and maternity care.

“In 2012 alone, Gravida-funded scientists published more than 340 papers in scientific journals, and it is this body of evidence that is feeding the knowledge about the influence the health of parents and the first years of life has on the individual and society - in terms of health, community and economy,” he said.

Already Gravida-funded studies have produced world-first findings and accomplished life-saving results, such as improving outcomes for pre-term and very low birth weight babies, and investigating the causes of life-threatening conditions such as pre-eclampsia.

The report also calls for a coordinated action plan in the area of nutrition, obesity and non-communicable diseases, based on a community health promotion approach and education (Key Recommendation Area 6). Gravida is committed to the translation of its research and has supported, for example, the successful LENScience programme for school children and teachers for many years. It is currently working on developing a national professional development training programme for healthcare workers, in partnership with the National Heart Foundation, Plunket, The College of Midwives and Tipu Ora, and with a wide range of stakeholders including Māori, Pacific, Asian, nutrition and children’s health organisations. The aim is to offer all healthcare workers who care for pregnant women and their children access to the latest research in order to best inform their community programmes.

Moreover, the prevention of conditions such as diabetes and obesity requires the development of an over-arching strategy, which Gravida is supporting with research that explores the influence of genes, diet and exercise, and through wide-reaching studies such as the International Healthy Start to Life project – a multi-faceted project that will produce an economic model to predict costs.

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