Reducing child inequalities in NZ and the world


By Monica Ganan, UniServices Business Development Manager

Families’ cultural and religious beliefs, health literacy, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and access to transport all play important roles in the health and wellbeing of children in the world, especially in Aotearoa-New Zealand. To celebrate Children's Day New Zealand, let’s take a closer look at how UniServices and the University of Auckland contribute to reducing child inequalities. 

It is not always obvious how a university can contribute directly to solving real-world problems like these. However, UniServices and the University of Auckland have the right combination of capability and innovative leadership that make them a perfect place to develop transformative new technology, knowledge, and talent to the inequities many New Zealand children face. With New Zealand

Reducing poor nutrition 

Poor nutrition, including the major issues of food insecurity and obesity, is often linked to poverty and it is an important aggravating factor in a significant proportion of illnesses in children in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In order to better understand the nutritional impact of household food insecurity, a group of our researchers developed a project using data from Growing Up in New Zealand, the country's largest contemporary longitudinal study of child development, which is managed by UniServices and funded by the Government. 

The project looked at whether certain food hardships, such as mothers reporting the need to buy cheaper food or having to go without fresh fruit and vegetables to pay for other things, had an impact on children’s breastfeeding; fruit and vegetable intake; and unhealthy food and drink consumption in the preschool period. The final report provided salient recommendations for policies and programmes to reduce the nutritional implications of widespread food insecurity among children in Aotearoa New Zealand.

New Zealand is the second highest ranked OECD country for child obesity, with 39 per cent of Kiwi kids classified as overweight or obese. Children living in the most socioeconomically deprived areas are 2.7 times as likely to be obese as children living in more nourishing environments. The prevalence of obesity among children differs by ethnicity, with 29.1% of Pacific and 13.2% of Māori obese, followed by 7.2% of European/Other and 3.4% of Asian children. 

The National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), supported by the University of Auckland and UniServices infrastructures developed TextMATCH, a maternal health text-message information and support programme. The programme is part of the Healthy Babies, Healthy Futures initiative in Waitematā and Auckland District Health Boards. 

TextMATCH is designed to support the reduction of the inequalities seen in childhood obesity by providing culturally tailored and personalised health information and support to Māori, Pacific, Asian and South Asian communities. The programme for pregnant women and mothers of children under the age of two years and their family/whānau is available in 16 different cultural versions. TextMATCH has supported over 6,000 women and whānau to-date across the two districts.  

Access to adequate healthcare and medicines

When a baby is born with a potentially fatal heart defect, the odds of survival are lower for a Pacific or Māori infant than for a Pākehā/European. 

Research by the Liggins Institute and Starship Child Health into the introduction of newborn pulse oximetry screening for the detection of critical congenital heart disease, which leads to death or need for surgery within 28 days of birth, has identified that Māori babies are less likely to be screened than European babies and that Health Board-led, rather than national-led, screening is likely to increase this inequity.

The researchers also found that there are ethnic inequities in the care pathway followed for babies with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a particularly severe form of critical congenital heart disease, with Māori and Pacific babies more likely to follow a palliative care route, rather than a surgical route, and less likely to survive to one year of age. 

Ongoing multidisciplinary research in partnership with Māori and Pasifika aims at unpicking the factors that underlie these inequities so that they can be addressed nationally. 

The University of Auckland is also helping to reduce child inequities in terms of improving global access to medicines for children. Access to medicines, including their availability and affordability, is a major public health challenge worldwide. 

With initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our researchers are developing a rectal formulation containing amoxicillin for the treatment of pneumonia in children under five years. This is an accessible alternative to existing formulations, which have limitations such as the need for clean water. We will be able to team up with a drug manufacturer and deliver affordable antibiotics for children to the places where there are most needed. 

Quality education 

The University of Auckland is also helping reduce child health inequities by enabling our Māori whānau to address the debilitating effects of visual impairment through the use of an iPad based vision screener technology in order to improve child school readiness. 

But we are not only helping to fight New Zealand inequalities. Non-communicable diseases are the number one cause of death globally and disproportionately impact developing countries, such as the Pacific Islands. Although Pacific nations also face increasing risk factors in young people, there is a lack of research focused on prevention and optimising early-life health. 

A collaboration between the Liggins Institute and the Cook Islands Ministries of Education and Health is addressing this complex issue in the Cook Islands by developing culturally relevant, student-focused programmes of professional learning and development (PLD) for teachers and learning modules for students to support life-long science and health literacy. Read more about the initiative here

Mental health

Poverty and living in malnourished environments are linked with children's mental health problems. Werry Workforce Whāraurau, operated by UniServices, contracted by the Ministries of Health, and Education to grow the capacity and capability of the infant, child and adolescent mental health and addictions workforce nationally. 

Werry has developed a series of programmes to promote child and youth mental health. Among other resources they offer a range of free e-Learning courses available to anyone who works with children, young people and their whãnau as well as evidence-based programmes on parenting support to whānau and aim to strengthen relationships between mātua and their Tamariki.

Final remarks 

It is critical that health research and knowledge translation are prioritised in order to globally improve health and wellbeing for our children and future generations. 

At UniServices we like to think and act out of the box and we see great potential for New Zealand to create real-world impact by helping reducing inequalities, not just locally, but also globally.

We want to help governments, industry, and non-for-profit organisations to grow and to find solutions for their biggest challenges. 

UniServices is here to help facilitate new partnerships and technology with the potential to transform the future. So, if this article sparks ideas for you, please get in touch and let’s see what we can do to help. 
If you are interested to learn more about what this really looks like, I encourage you to:

Contact UniServices Business Development Manager Monica Ganan: