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Study to examine kava’s link to drink-driving

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Study to examine kava’s link to drink-driving

Former police officer and soldier Dr Apo Aporosa has received a 2015 Pacific postdoctoral fellowship worth $230,000 from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to examine the effects of the popular Pacific Island drink, kava, on driver ability and road safety.

Kava is a traditional Pacific Island drink with great cultural significance that produces soporific relaxant effects similar to sedative drugs. This study – the first of its kind – will use cognitive and driving simulation tests to access driver fitness immediately following high kava use.

Dr Aporosa, a research associate of Fijian descent at the University of Waikato, is an expert in the area of kava and health, and has advised the NZ Police on several kava drink-driving cases. He says it is estimated that there are more than 20,000 kava users on an average Friday or Saturday night in New Zealand. Most of these users are consuming kava at volumes 32 times greater than pharmacologically recommended doses, with many then driving home.

“Injury resulting from road traffic accidents is the leading cause of hospitalisation for Pasifika men and women living in New Zealand, with anecdotal reports suggesting that kava contributes to this,” says Dr Aporosa.

He also believes that kava use in New Zealand is underestimated, with increasing numbers of non-Pasifika peoples consuming the substance.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says Dr Aporosa’s research, which will concentrate on the impairment effects of kava on driving ability in Hamilton and South Auckland, has great potential to improve health outcomes for Pasifika peoples and other road users, and reduce the social cost of drug-driving related accidents, estimated to be $6.5 million annually.

“This year we’re funding 36 Pacific health researchers to the tune of $1.5 million through our Pacific career development awards programme, up from $1.3 million in 2014. It’s exciting to see the big increase in the number of Pacific summer studentships awarded as these are our future Pacific health research leaders.”

Professor McPherson says the HRC has been able to further show its commitment to supporting the development and retention of Pacific health researchers this year by funding two new awards: a Pacific clinical research training fellowship and a Pacific emerging researcher first grant.

Surgeon and research fellow Dr Bruce Su’a from the University of Auckland has received the inaugural Pacific clinical research training fellowship to develop earlier effective treatment for anastomotic leakage – one of the most dreaded complications following colon cancer surgery – by measuring biomarkers in patients’ blood.

The new Pacific emerging researcher first grants have been awarded to Dr Tinte Itinteang from Gillies McIndoe Research Institute in Wellington who is investigating cancer stem cells in oral cavity squamous cell carcinomas (cancer of the lip, floor of the mouth, and palate), and Dr Pritika Narayan from the University of Auckland who is examining how the epigenome, which helps control which genes are active in a particular cell, is compromised in Huntington’s disease.
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