Working with the Notorious Mongrel Mob on a study into liver health was not without its challenges - but getting in touch with the high-risk, hard-to-reach population was worth it, an academic says.
Fifty-two Notorious Mongrel Mob members, affiliates and extended family took part in the research, which was published today in Royal Society Open Science and assessed hepatitis prevalence, knowledge and liver health risk factors.
The study included about 20 participants from Dunedin.
Associate Professor Michael Schultz, head of the Department of Medicine, said New Zealand had a high percentage of undiagnosed hepatitis B and C cases.
Members of the gang were considered to be at high risk for hepatitis C due to common intravenous drug use, uncertified tattooing, and a high incarceration rate.
Of most concern was the "marginal" knowledge study participants had about viral hepatitis.
"Education is key to stopping hepatitis C from spreading. This study demonstrates the need for educational screening programmes to aid early detection, prevention and treatment."
Having a medical student who came from a gang family - Jordan Tewhaiti-Smith - on the research team helped to break the ice.
"They were very nice and co-operative and really interested, despite what we think we know about the Mongrel Mob..
"I see this as one of the most interesting and challenging projects I have ever done. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone."
The researchers identified several areas of concern, including three times higher rate of liver inflammation and damage compared to the general population, one-fifth of study participants having significant to severe levels of liver fibrosis and cirrhosis, "exceptionally high" levels of alcohol consumption, and more than twice the obesity rate of the general population.
As part of the study University of Otago researchers held three "health hui" to educate study participants.
Dr Schultz said he thought there was scope to work with the gang on projects targeting diabetes and hypertension, but nothing was currently planned.
He also thought the study format could be extended to other subjects.
"With some persistence and good planning, it is possible to reach these people."