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Putting children first makes economic sense

Putting children first makes economic sense

New Zealand scientists researching the early life origins of adult conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, have taken the unusual step of joining with economists and public health experts to bring the long term implications of their work to the attention of policymakers.

A landmark international meeting in Wellington on 17th and 18th April will introduce a radical change in thinking about how to deal with many of our current social and health problems.

The International Healthy Start to Life project emphasises action focused at the roots of the problems rather than the consequences. It has the potential to make a major impact on our economy through promoting a healthier, wealthier more productive society.

The initiative is being led by Professor Peter Gluckman the Director of the Liggins Institute at The University of Auckland and the National Research Centre for Growth and Development (NRCGD), one of New Zealand’s Centre’s of Research Excellence.

Research at the NRCGD focuses on the developmental origins of disease and cognitive development. This work has raised concern that, throughout the world, health care budgets and initiatives could be targeted more effectively for the public good.

The project brings together a unique grouping of world leading economists, policy advisors and medical scientists from developed and developing countries. Together, they are devising an appropriate economic model they can use to evaluate the social and financial costs across lifetimes and populations that arise from children not having a healthy start to life.

The information provides a tool to assess the value of nutritional and social programmes which, targeted at specific points of the life-course, will have the greatest impact on the long term health, productivity and quality of life in populations in different stages of social and economic development.

“We hope the project will encourage policymakers to take a long term view rather than applying isolated, short term fixes driven by electoral cycles,” says Gluckman. “In recent years science and medicine have looked to the genome for answers and neglected the importance of the processes of development in building the foundations of healthy lives.

“To focus on human development we need individuals, families, communities, politicians and agencies to understand that a healthy start to life will pay dividends for the whole of society, in time. Just because it will not make a big impact tomorrow does not mean that it is not worth doing today.”

The work to date has shown that comparatively simple measures and interventions aimed at improving the health and nutrition of women before and early in pregnancy would result in long term gains, for example by reducing disability, obesity and the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

The international project team will hold working sessions in Auckland on 15th and 16th April before a full meeting in Wellington on 17th and 18th April.


Key participants/spokespeople:

Prof Peter Gluckman
Director Liggins Institute and National Research Centre for Growth and Development University Distinguished Professor and Professor of Paediatric and Perinatal Biology, The University of Auckland

Prof Mark Hanson
Founding Director of the Institute of Developmental Sciences at the University of Southampton, Director of the Division of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in the University’s School of Medicine, and British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Science.

Dr Harold Alderman
Lead Human Development Economist for the Africa Region at The World Bank, Washington, D.C. He is co-author of 2006 paper, Reducing the incidence of low birth weight in low-income countries has substantial economic benefits published on behalf of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and The World Bank
His main research interests are food policy and nutrition and the economics of education and of targeted poverty programs. He has been looking at ways that improving nutrition and cognitive development in pre-school children would bring social and economic benefits to developing countries.

Prof Terrence Forrester
Professor of Medicine, Tropical Metabolism Research Unit, University of the West Indies, Jamaica
Prof Forrester is a distinguished and innovative medical scientist who has questioned the relevance of traditional knowledge and public health practices to the small populations of developing Caribbean countries. His current research focus is on how poor fetal growth, early-life ‘developmental programming’ and obesity can lead to hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases, which currently affect more than 25% of Caribbean people.


International Healthy Start to life Project
Background Notes

Liggins Institute

The Liggins Institute was established in 2001 and is the first large-scale research institute of The University of Auckland, New Zealand. It has a staff of about 160. It is one of the world’s leading centres for research on fetal and child health, growth and development, breast cancer, epigenetics and evolutionary medicine. The Institute is one of the major contributors to research addressing the role of epigenetic and developmental factors in the pathway to metabolic disease and obesity. Their work has spanned the theoretical, molecular, physiological, clinical and epidemiological dimensions of this theme with many high impact publications and a number of their staff receiving high international recognition. The director, Prof Peter Gluckman FRS has defined the distinct developmental pathways, the role of epigenetic processes, their experimental reversibility and the role of developmental plasticity in the pathway to disease.

The Institute is the lead partner in the National Research Centre for Growth and Development (see below).

The work of the Liggins Institute involves an extensive collaboration (including cross academic appointments) with the Institute of Developmental Sciences of the University of Southampton (UK), and also a collaboration with a small branch of the Liggins Institute housed in the Department of Pathology in Cambridge (UK) to assist in epigenetic research. They have recently entered a significant research partnership with the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), establishing a joint programme focused on the origins of obesity and diabetes in Asian populations.

National Research Centre for Growth and Development (NRCGD)

The NRCGD is one of New Zealand’s prestigious, government funded Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs). Based at The University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute it unites researchers from the Universities of Auckland, Canterbury and Otago, Massey University, AgResearch and Landcorp. Its uniquely multidisciplinary approach, which draws on fields as diverse as medicine and mathematics, agriculture and epidemiology, means that it has the capacity to rapidly translate findings in basic science into clinical practice, recommendations for public health policy and improvements in agriculture. The primary research focus is on understanding how biological ‘cues’ in the earliest stages of life can herald life course consequences that impact on human health and disease and productivity in farm animals.

The NRCGD is directed by Professor Peter Gluckman and involves extensive international collaborations. It has been instrumental in supporting and coordinating the International Healthy Start to Life initiative.


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