Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman 'running scared'

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is being accused of "running scared" over his refusal to answer questions about the lack of funding for a life-saving infant sleeping device.

The accusations against Coleman come as experts estimate a national roll out of the traditional bassinet would cost as little as $1.5 million.

"This is a programme that should not continue to be run by charities. It is now a proven intervention and therefore should be picked up by the Government," said Professor Ed Mitchell, New Zealand's leading infant death expert.

READ MORE: Funding for safe-sleep bassinets secretly shelved by Government

The portable bassinets, called pepi-pods, allow Maori families the cultural custom of bed-sharing while giving the baby its own safe sleep space and preventing accidental smothering, which claims the lives of at least 25 infants a year.

Research has linked the $100 pepi-pods to the first reduction in Maori infant mortality rates since 2000.

A Herald investigation found the ministry restricted the reach of these devices and secretly tore up a contract to fund them over safety concerns which were never discussed with experts.

Coleman has refused to answer any questions about the ministry's handling of the issue.

"This is an operational matter and we have nothing further to add to the ministry's response," Coleman's press secretary wrote in an email.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei came out swinging against Coleman's response, accusing him of "running scared".

"The minister has had ample advice from professionals that these devices will save babies lives and yet he has refused time and time again to support their use," she said.

"Now his failure has been exposed and the risk that his failure poses to children has also been exposed."

Labour Party deputy leader and health spokeswoman Annette King said the minister's reasons not to publicly front over the issue were "a cop out".

"He could request an up-to-date review of the pepi-pod situation or ask what the latest advice is regarding the device," King said.

"The buck stops with him."

Kathrine Clarke, national manager of Maori sudden infant death prevention programme Whakawhetu, said it was unacceptable for the minister to refuse to publicly comment.

"I think this is an avoidable mortality and the fact that babies die in the first year of life is a system failure."

The ministry has previously said it was "awaiting research" to prove pepi-pods reduced Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI), of which New Zealand holds the worst rate in the industrialised world.

Grassroots funding and the support of 14 District Health Boards has seen 15,000 pods handed out to at-risk families.

Jonathan Coleman, the Minister of Health. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jonathan Coleman, the Minister of Health. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The ministry, which advises against bed-sharing, now suggests families who choose to co-sleep use a pepi-pod, but it says there is not enough scientific evidence to warrant funding the devices.

Mitchell, of the University of Auckland, estimates it would only cost $1.5m to provide every at-risk family in New Zealand with a pepi-pod - a tiny fraction of the $16bn health Budget forecast for 2016/2017.

Most at-risk are Maori babies and those who are born pre-term, underweight or have been exposed to smoke.

Even though some babies were fatally smothered by drunk or drugged parents, Mitchell said pepi-pods can increase their chance of survival.

"We now believe that this needs to be taken up as a mainstream project with Government funding."

Mitchell said he did not support the minister's decision to remain silent on this issue.

"Most ministers usually front up if they need to defend a position."

Stephanie Cowan, Change For Our Children executive director who has been leading the charge on pepi-pod distribution, said she was surprised that "such an important piece of public health work is not being led by the health sector".

"I don't know why there is such resistance to even have a conversation with me, let alone with the press.

"Why is there no interest in what we are learning?" Cowan asked.

Mariameno Nicholson-Walden, who lost her 2-month-old daughter to SUDI last year, said it was "unfair" the Minister would not comment on such a major public health concern.

"Jonathan [Coleman], I want you to understand that you're disrespecting mothers and children ... You give us the real reasons [for the lack of funding]."

Sleeping danger

• New Zealand has the worst rate of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) in the industrialised world.

• Every year 50 babies die from SUDI, with half being accidentally smothered by parents.

• Maori babies are eight times more likely to die from accidental suffocation because of high smoking rates and the cultural custom of bed-sharing.

• A sleeping device, a wahakura or pepi-pod, was designed in 2006 to prevent deaths while bed-sharing.

• The Ministry of Health ignored the recommendations of leading child death experts and at least 12 coroners over providing pepi-pods.

• The ministry secretly tore up a $250,000 contract to fund these devices in 2012.

• New research shows the first reduction in Maori infant death rates in 16 years is occurring in areas where district health boards are funding the pods.

- NZ Herald

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