A just-launched study will investigate how heavy drinking is worsening New Zealand's shocking child abuse rates.

"New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child maltreatment and neglect in the developed world and heavy alcohol use by caregivers is likely a contributing factor," said Dr Taisia Huckle, of Massey University's SHORE & Whāriki Research Centre.

"This type of harm to children from alcohol remains largely invisible or neglected."

Huckle was this week awarded a Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship from the Health Research Council, worth $500,000, to look more deeply at the problem over the next four years.


"The evidence is clear that heavy use of alcohol by parents places children at increased risk of serious harm."

In a 2008 study, at least 17 per cent of children in New Zealand were reported to experience harm due to another's drinking, including verbal abuse, being physically hurt, witnessing violence between intimate partners, as well be being neglected or left unsupervised.

This proportion was higher than estimated in other countries, including Australia (12 per cent) and Ireland (11 per cent).

"It is so important to look at this issue as child maltreatment affects development and is related to suicide and substance misuse later on," she said.

"Child maltreatment is not yet included in estimates of alcohol's contribution to the Global Burden of Disease Study as there is a need for national studies to provide empirical risk estimates."

The study aimed to estimate alcohol's effect on child maltreatment among those aged 0-17 years, comparing children whose parents drank heavily with those not exposed to the problem.

This research would draw on the Statistics New Zealand Integrated Data Infrastructure, which linked datasets across different generations, but didn't identify individuals.

"We will use a cohort of all children born in 2000 and follow them through to 2018," she said.


"We will conduct a survival analysis which compares the occurrence of documented maltreatment in children with and without exposure to parental problem/heavy drinking."

The study would ultimately provide a more complete picture of the issue, and help inform policy on alcohol control.

"In the case of tobacco, the effects of second-hand smoke was an important element in advocacy for healthier public policy, and it is likely alcohol's harm to others will also contribute to the policy debate."

The project was among more than $10m in career development awards just granted by the Health Research Council, much of them focused on Māori and Pasifika.

Another researcher, Matire Ward of Victoria University, hoped to improve the success of a fertility treatment rarely used in New Zealand but which could potentially provide a safer alternative to current artificial reproductive technologies.

Ward sought to improve the process of in vitro maturation (IVM), in which eggs were retrieved while still at an immature stage and brought to maturity in the laboratory (in vitro).

The process differed from conventional in vitro fertilisation (IVF) which utilised medications to bring a patient's eggs to maturity before they were removed from the ovary.

Ward claimed IVM was safer than conventional IVF, as the treatment didn't rely on ovarian stimulation which could result in ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, where ovaries became swollen and painful.

However, the use of IVM in fertility clinics remained controversial due to the reduced quality of embryos derived from in vitro matured eggs.

For this reason, the practice was still rare in New Zealand, with the first baby only conceived in 2013.

"The main issue is that current IVM methods produce lower-quality embryos," she said.

"We're taking an immature egg from its natural environment and putting it in this foreign environment in the lab."

The secret to improving the treatment's success could be in mimicking, within a petri dish, the natural physical environment of ovarian follicles in which eggs would normally mature.

As a follicle matured, an area within it filled with fluid.

The nutrients, including glucose, carbohydrates, hormones, and growth factors present in this fluid were transferred to the egg by its surrounding support cells.

This transfer was critical for optimal egg development and maturation.

When cells were cultured in a dish in the lab, these nutrients were provided at concentrations very different to what was found in follicular fluid.

Using cow's eggs for her investigations, Ward would prepare and test nutrients at concentrations similar to that of follicular fluid.

Next, she would investigate the key molecular and metabolic pathways altered when immature eggs were exposed to these nutrients, to develop an improved IVM system that produced high-quality embryos.

Ward said refining this therapy may give another treatment option to couples concerned about, or at risk of, hyper-stimulation syndrome.

The new grants would also support new research looking at racism in New Zealand's health system.

Natalie Talamaivao, a senior advisor in Māori Research at the Ministry of Health (MoH), was about to take up a research role with the University of Otago, with the aim of developing an anti-racism framework for guiding policy advisors and decision-makers.

She said there was already clear and robust evidence showing racism was an important health determinant for Māori and an underlying cause of ethnic inequalities, both here and overseas.

"We've got a significant body of evidence that's been developed and it's at the stage now where we need to think about how to translate it into action."

HRC chief executive Dr Kath McPherson said, with her background, Talamaivao was well-placed to open an important pipeline between research and policy.

"A key focus of New Zealand's first Health Research Strategy is how best to enhance the connection between research and its potential to drive improvements in the health system, and we're very pleased to support Natalie to pursue this important work."