Winning prestigious award bittersweet for professor

University of Otago (Wellington) epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker and his research team...
University of Otago (Wellington) epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker and his research team have won the Health Research Council’s Liley Medal for research which produced a significant breakthrough in the prevention of rheumatic fever. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Winning one of New Zealand’s most prestigious research awards has been bittersweet for leading University of Otago (Wellington) epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker.

He and his research team won the Health Research Council’s Liley Medal at the Royal Society Te Apārangi Research Honours ceremony this week, for their research aimed at preventing rheumatic fever. It is the second time Prof Baker has won the medal — the first was in 2013 for a study identifying the rise in serious infectious diseases in New Zealand and increasing ethnic inequities.

"While I appreciate receiving this medal again, I am sad that I am still researching the same serious health problems and inequalities a decade later — particularly since we have the knowledge to make a real difference here."

The medal is awarded annually to an individual or research team whose recent research produced a significant breakthrough within the health and medical fields.

The team published two papers highlighting a major development in understanding the causes of acute rheumatic fever and the role of preceding Group A Streptococcal infections.

Prof Baker said he was "thrilled" the team was acknowledged for the quality and impact of the research.

"These two studies were challenging to carry out.

"They required a massive effort by a large group of researchers and clinicians who worked with communities for more than a decade to plan them, do the field work, and then write up and publish the findings."

He said the research used two case-control studies — one looking at the risk factors for acute rheumatic fever and the other investigating risk factors for the strep bacterial infections (strep sore throats and strep skin infections) which caused rheumatic fever.

"The rheumatic fever study found that disease risk was strongly associated with living in a crowded household, barriers to seeing a doctor, drinking sugar-sweetened drinks, a family history of rheumatic fever, and a preceding history of throat or skin infection."

The research identified potential new ways to prevent rheumatic fever, including a focus on effective treatment of skin infections and encouraging children to drink healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened drinks.

"These findings reinforce the central role that good quality, uncrowded housing has in protecting children during the period when they are vulnerable to rheumatic fever and other infectious diseases."

Prof Baker said New Zealand was one of the only high income countries to still see new cases of rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.

"It is our most iniquitous disease, with rates for young Māori that are 20 times higher than for people of European and other ethnicity, and for Pacific young people 44 times higher. This is a further reason why we need to eliminate child poverty in New Zealand.

"Lifting children out of poverty has resulted in rheumatic fever largely disappearing in high income countries across Europe and North America."