Professor Michael Baker

University of Otago, Wellington infectious diseases expert Professor Michael Baker has received almost $5 million from the Health Research Council for a programme investigating the connection between infectious diseases and long-term conditions, something he was planning well prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.

This new programme is called SYMBIOTIC: Syndemic Management of the Biology and Treatment of Infections and Chronic conditions. Professor Baker explains the central idea is that infectious diseases and serious long-term conditions like chronic lung disease and diabetes tend to occur together, known as “syndemics”.

“The programme was written in 2019 but the ideas are very relevant to our current response to Covid-19 where the risks of infection and poor outcomes are strongly influenced by the presence of chronic conditions and poverty,” Professor Baker says.

“A major goal of the programme is to better understand the two-way relationship between acute and long-term conditions to improve health and equity in New Zealand.”

SYMBIOTIC lead researcher Dr Amanda Kvalsvig says the programme will work in partnership with communities, healthcare providers, Māori health providers and policymakers to create practical, effective solutions to break syndemic cycles in a bid to improve health and equity.

“We need a transformational model that can address these complex health issues as a whole, instead of the fragmented approaches that have been used until now.”

Finding the best screening and treatment strategy to eliminate a chronic stomach infection (Helicobacter pylori) to prevent stomach cancer is just one of the areas to be investigated as well as reducing unnecessary use of antibiotics in childhood to prevent long-term conditions like diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that may be linked to antibiotic use.

A senior Māori researcher in the group, Anaru Waa, says a key strength of the programme is the potential for innovative solutions that combine syndemic approaches with Māori models of health.

“Grounding the research within Māori experiences will help identify solutions for how infectious diseases and long-term conditions can better be managed by and with Māori communities,” Mr Waa says.

One Health Aotearoa investigators involved with SYMBIOTIC include Michael Baker, Amanda Kvaslvig, Ayesha Verrall, William Leung and Jonathan Kennedy. Sue Huang and James Ussher are advisors.

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