For more than a year, an extraordinary public spotlight has been cast upon the incredible work of health scientists, epidemiologists and vaccinologists in the face of a global pandemic. Cure Kids shares the same relentless drive for prevention, treatment and cures – not just for one condition, but for all serious health conditions affecting our tamariki.
Sadly, in August last year, the man who founded Cure Kids passed away in his home, aged 86. Fifty years earlier, Professor Sir Bob Elliott KNZM had the visionary foresight to know that unless we started investing specifically in child health research in New Zealand, we would drop further down in the OECD health rankings.
Sir Bob and co-founder Dr Ron Caughey established the Child Health Research Foundation with a generous grant from Rotary. Now known as Cure Kids, the organisation has become the country's largest funder of child health research outside of government.
An integral part of founding Cure Kids was the establishment of Professorial Chairs. These positions provide certainty of funding for some of the best and brightest research minds in New Zealand. It enables them to get on with tackling the big issues facing kiwi kids without the worry of exhausting research funds.
This year, Cure Kids celebrates our 50th anniversary, and the passing of our beloved Sir Bob has given us an even stronger drive to continue his life-changing work. We carry this mantle, passionately focused on funding research into those health issues which are preventable and a result of the social inequities and deprivation in our country.
While New Zealand has some of the highest living standards in the world, this does not translate into high standards of health and wellbeing for our children. UNICEF recently ranked the health and wellbeing of New Zealand children 38th out of 41 developed countries. This puts us behind Bulgaria, Chile and Mexico.
Each year 40,000 Kiwi kids under the age of 14 are admitted to hospital for poverty-related health conditions.
Rheumatic fever is a stark example of such inequities – a disease eradicated in most OECD nations yet disproportionately affecting Māori and Pasifika in New Zealand, making up 95 per cent of new cases nationally.
Around 40 per cent of 5-year-olds have evidence of tooth decay, with higher rates for Māori and Pasifika children. Hospitalisation for tooth decay is particularly high for children living in areas of high deprivation.
Respiratory conditions are the leading cause of acute admissions to hospital for children, with "asthma and wheeze" the most frequent diagnosis. Māori and Pasifika children, and children living in areas of high deprivation, have the highest hospital admission rates for respiratory conditions.
Similarly, for serious skin infections, hospital admission rates are highest in Māori and Pasifika children, those younger than 5 years, and children living in areas with high socioeconomic deprivation.
These shocking, and quite frankly, shameful statistics are the reason Cure Kids has taken the move upon our 50th anniversary year to create the Elliott-Caughey Fund, a $10 million pool of funding dedicated entirely to research that addresses illnesses linked to deprivation.
Work is being done both by government and the private sector to address substandard housing conditions, high living costs, inequalities in education, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and we absolutely must keep that momentum going.
But early intervention and prevention in a medical sense is paramount too. That's why it's an honour to be able to fund New Zealand's brightest child health researchers, who devote their lives to finding preventions, treatments and cures to ensure our children have healthier lives with a brighter future. Our researchers are the cream of the crop of New Zealand's child health research workforce.
Take Professor Stuart Dalziel at Starship Hospital, who is on the front line working with children as a paediatric emergency medicine specialist, while leading profound research into treatments for asthma and bronchiolitis (the most common reason for infants to be admitted to hospital). Professor Dalziel serves as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and the safety fence at the top.
What excites me most about our researchers' work is the potential for any New Zealand-derived research breakthroughs to translate into international impact.
Imagine if our Kiwi researchers could find local, ground-breaking solutions for rheumatic heart disease and impart this knowledge with third world countries where the same issues are rife.
Despite our organisation taking on the scary and difficult stuff, my spirit grows hopeful when I witness the generosity and empathy of everyday Kiwis. Cure Kids noticed a trend towards the end of 2020 where public philanthropy suddenly picked up.
Perhaps it's from a year of realising the vulnerability of people's health; while those of us blessed with good health may have had to contend with a few weeks in lockdown, for many immunocompromised children, a life-long lockdown is their norm.
Or perhaps it came down to recognition of some big public milestones for our charity – such as our annual Red Nose appeal or the launch of our first State of Child Health Report.
So, to reflect on both the previous and next 50 years of our work, on behalf of everyone at Cure Kids, I want to acknowledge our supporters – our generous donors who make our funding possible, the dedicated researchers with endless questions to solve, and the brave children at the heart of our cause in the first place.
However, the most timely acknowledgement must go to the legacy of the late Sir Bob Elliott and Dr Ron Caughey. For these two fine gentleman, I want our vision of
healthier children with brighter futures to be widely known, and for Cure Kids to be
the absolute partner of choice for government policy makers, budding researchers,
corporate supporters, and our team of five million Kiwis, who have the biggest of
hearts and who are generous with their giving.
• France Benge is Cure Kids CEO and a former nurse.