Maori Tb to be studied

Philip Hill
Philip Hill
The disproportionately high rate of tuberculosis in New Zealand’s Maori population is partly due to the disease’s correlation with poverty, an Otago researcher says.

University of Otago McAuley Professor of International Health and co-director of the university’s Centre for International Health Philip Hill has received a $250,000 grant from the Health Research Council to study  700 Maori people in the Waikato region, testing for latent Tb. He hopes his study will  include 200 prisoners from the Spring Hill Corrections Facility, and will investigate  whether there is a "reservoir" of latent Tb in older Maori. Prof Hill said he had studied the disease overseas but this would be his first study in New Zealand and it was "exciting" to receive the funding.

"This is the first truly population-based study of latent Tb infection [in New Zealand] as far as I’m aware."

The work will be carried out with the assistance of the Waikato District Health Board’s Maori health service. Earlier in the year, the town of Kawhia, in the Waikato, hit headlines with  a Tb outbreak.  

Prof Hill hoped the study would eventually become nationwide and treatment could be developed for people with latent Tb.

The disease had a "devastating" effect in New Zealand in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and the low rate of the disease in Pakeha was a "major success story". However, Maori were still disproportionately affected, comprising half of all New Zealand-born Tb patients. The prognosis for people  developing Tb in New Zealand was "excellent" now,  but Tb could still leave patients with lasting damage to their lungs.

Being infected once also did not lead to future immunity, Prof Hill said. He understood the difference between  Maori and Pakeha populations was at least partly due to poverty, malnutrition and poor conditions rather than different vaccination rates.

It definitely "tracks with poverty",  although the exact connection was unclear, Prof Hill said. Prof Hill said he would be working with local marae leaders to look at how Maori people not included in the survey model could also be involved. Latent Tb could develop in people exposed to it at any age but it did not always progress to an infection. Living with someone who had Tb gave  an 80% to 90%  chance of developing an infection that could remain latent or become active at some stage. Until the 1930s, Tb was not even tracked in the Maori population, and that mirrored the "general neglect" of Maori health during that time, he said.

• Other researchers from the University of Otago who received grants included Prof  Steve Chambers from the Department of Pathology, to test the feasibility of using vitamin C to treat  people in hospital with pneumonia. Prof Richard Porter  received a grant to study the effectiveness of "talk therapy" for bipolar disorder. 

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