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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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New appointment advances Pacific cancer research

Cancer and asthma are major public health problems for Pacific peoples, but health research takes a significant step forward with a new research appointment.

Dr Sunia Foliaki has been appointed as a Pacific Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

His three-year fellowship, worth $360,000, is funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. He will be based at the Centre for Public Health Research at Massey University’s Wellington campus, says Centre Director, Professor Neil Pearce.

Dr Foliaki is in the final stages of completing a PhD on asthma in the Pacific, and will focus on cancer in Pacific populations for his Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Professor Pearce says non-communicable diseases including cancer and asthma are major public health problems for Pacific peoples residing both in the Pacific and in New Zealand.

Cancer accounts for more than 70 per cent of health referral budgets from Pacific Islands to New Zealand. The principal donor to some of these referral budgets is the New Zealand government. As there have been few studies on cancer it is essential that basic cancer epidemiological research be conducted if we are to implement appropriate strategies for control of cancer and other non-communicable diseases in both the Pacific and New Zealand.

Dr Foliaki says cancer is a significant and growing problem in the Pacific but relatively little is known about the magnitude of the problem, the risk factors or the potential for prevention.

“Over the past 25 years a great deal of research on non-communicable diseases has been conducted throughout the South Pacific, but there have been few studies of cancer,” says Dr Foliaki.

He has established a cancer registry within Tonga’s health ministry, and assisted in establishing and upgrading cancer registries in the Cook Islands, Niue and Fiji. He will establish registries in further countries, as well as produce the first analysis of cancer incidence in these countries. The incidence rates will be compared to those in Pacific people in New Zealand. In addition, Dr Foliaki will be conducting case-control studies of the causes of breast cancer and gastric cancer in the Pacific, and factors that affect cancer survival.

Dr Foliaki says systems for data collection in most Pacific countries including Tonga are often non-standardised, making comparisons between countries difficult. Nevertheless the available data clearly identifies cancer as a leading cause of morbidity and an increasing health burden. There is data indicating that cancer has been the second leading cause of mortality in most Pacific islands countries for the past 5 to 10 years.

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