magazine for alumni and friends of Massey University.
Issue 14, April 2002
The Research School of Public Health
Professor Neil Pearce
and the Centre for Public Health Research
The practice of clinical medicine has a certain glamour,
but it wasn’t treatment or immunisation that brought such
19th century killers as tuberculosis and cholera to bay, but
widespread advances in housing sanitation and nutrition – in
other words, public health. And today it remains such things
as housing, nutrition, and the hazards associated with work
that by and large determine the health of New Zealanders.
new Research School of Public Health creates a cluster of public
health expertise. The school is made up of the Auckland-based
SHORE Centre; Te Pümanawa Hauora, the Wellington-based
Centre for Public Health Research; and the Sleep/Wake Research
The Centres will share information between their
disciplines, and draw on the expertise within the wider University.
School is expected to play a significant role in public policy.
Near the end of the 1970s Neil Pearce, now the director of
Massey’s fledgeling Centre for Public Health Research,
earned a living driving Wellington’s big reds.
He had been studying seemingly forever at Victoria and Otago
in his chosen disciplines of mathematics and statistics,
and driving a bus around Wellington for a living had been
option. He gave up after about a year – “because
I worried I might run over someone and kill them”,
But after more than two decades to the international fore
of research into asthma and other key public health issues,
looks back on his old job as the start of
He believes the stint ‘on the buses’ was crucial
in shaping his awareness of public health issues, significantly
from the perspective of the workers.“
I saw first hand what people’s occupational problems
were, from shift work, stress, exposure to chemicals and the
like. It got me interested.” When he next applied for a job – as an orderly at Wellington
Hospital – he was turned down. But the hospital had
the good sense to recognise his qualifications, referring
medical school, which took him on as a biostatistician.
Including stints researching occupational cancer at the University
of North Carolina and at the International Agency for Research
on Cancer at Lyon, France, there followed a prolific and ground-breaking
His work was key in proving the importance of socio-economic
factors to life expectancy in New Zealand – innovative
thinking in the 1980s – and subsequent work in the
Bay of Plenty spurred a national catch-up Hepatitis B immunisation
campaign for children.
Other work looking at the high incidence of certain cancers
in agricultural workers was instrumental in showing that pesticide
usage was less significant causally than had been thought.
An observation that freezing workers had a particularly high
cancer rate engendered the belief that a virus or other biological
exposure from animals could be responsible – though
no one has been able to pin it down precisely.
It was in the 1990s, however, that Pearce started what was
to become his best-known and most influential research.
At the time New Zealand had the highest asthma-related mortality
rate in the world. “
We discovered it was due to a drug called fenoterol,” he
says. The discovery led directly to the drug’s restriction
in New Zealand, Australia and Japan, and its
dosage being halved in other countries by its manufacturers.
As a result mortality rates plummeted, and have remained
third of the level they were before.
Latterly, in the ambitious International Study of Asthma and
Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC), developed by groups in Auckland,
Wellington, London and Germany, Pearce has helped dispel the
myth that New Zealand has the worst asthma prevalence in the
The study’s first phase, sampling 750,000 children
from 160 centres in about 60 countries, produced a clear
that asthma rates were just as high in other English-speaking
We wasted about 15 years saying New Zealand is unique,” Pearce
says. “There has been an incredible amount of speculation
about factors like house dust mites, cats, pollens and other
things that might be special about New Zealand. Instead we
should be asking what New Zealand has in common with other
countries like Australia, Britain, Ireland, Canada and the
United States, all of which have just as much asthma as we
There are places like Tucson (Arizona) where there are no dust
mites because it is so dry. But it has exactly the same prevalence
as us.” All very well. But if dust mites aren’t
the cause, are we any closer to knowing why people contract
asthma in the
There’s a new theory known as the hygiene hypothesis.
If you get – as in the old days – lots of infections
early in life, this protects you against getting asthma later
Maybe now we’re too clean and we’ve lost that
protection. If we could work out how this happens, then maybe
work out how to prevent asthma.”
When work makes people ill
As well as asthma, the Centre is
conducting work on Mäori
and Pacific health, cultural safety and occupational health.
The overwhelming interest from the Labour Department’s
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and the Accident Compensation
Commission has rested with workplace accidents, says Professor
Pearce, but occupational cancer causes about five times as
many deaths as occupational accidents.
The research team is involved in a big study of workplace
cancer in conjunction with OSH.
There’s not just cancer,” he says. “There’s
also respiratory disease, hearing loss, neurological effects