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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Professor Neil PearceDSc recognises outstanding contribution

Professor Neil Pearce, Director of the University’s Centre for Public Health Research in Wellington, has been awarded the University’s highest award for science.

Research director Professor Nigel Long says the Doctor of Science degree has been conferred on Professor Pearce because of his many years of work on epidemiology methods and their application in research into non-communicable diseases.

His wide-ranging research has included studies of asthma, occupational health, socio-economic factors in health, Mäori health, cancer and environmental health.

“ Many of these personal interests of Professor Pearce are now reflected in the research projects being undertaken within the Centre and funded by the Health Research Council,” says Professor Long.

“ These include nationally-significant projects on respiratory disease, occupational health, cancer, Mäori health, Pacific health, and socio-economic factors in health. All are now key areas within the Government’s new health strategy.”

Professor Pearce has visited more than 80 countries teaching epidemiologic methods, doing collaborative research projects, and taking a few detours along the way. During the 1980s his main research interest was in occupational epidemiology, and he co-authored the leading textbook of occupational epidemiology.

He also conducted some of the first occupational epidemiology studies in New Zealand, including a series that discovered that meat workers are at greater risk of certain forms of cancer. He also steered one of the first studies that showed that electrical workers were at increased risk of leukaemia because of exposure to electromagnetic fields.

In the 1980s, Professor Pearce published the first studies showing large socio-economic differences in death rates in New Zealand. He worked with the late Professor Eru Pomare on studies that showed that high Mäori death rates were not only due to socio-economic factors, but also to problems of cultural safety and access to health care.

Professor Pearce also worked on the first studies in the Bay of Plenty to show that hepatitis B infection and carriage were major public health problems in New Zealand, and which developed and successfully tested the low-dose vaccination that was eventually adopted nationwide.

Professor Pearce led the epidemiology studies that first established that the beta agonist fenoterol was responsible for an epidemic of asthma deaths in New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s. These studies led to the Ministry of Health restricting the availability of fenoterol in New Zealand and the asthma death rate immediately fell by two-thirds.

In the 1990s he undertook ground-breaking research into the causes of asthma. This has included establishing (with colleagues in Auckland, London and Germany) the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC), which is coordinated by Dr Innes Asher at the Auckland School of Medicine. This has grown into the largest health research project in the world.

Related research by Professor Pearce has shown that the importance of allergens for asthma has been overstated and that non-allergic mechanisms account for more than half the cases. These non-allergic mechanisms are now being investigated in joint research by the CPHR and the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research. He has authored a textbook of asthma epidemiology.

Finally, he has made significant contributions to epidemiologic methods, and has played a major role in the debate on the future of epidemiology. He has published a series of papers on the need for epidemiology to rediscover the population perspective and to use theories and methods that take the population context into account.

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