First anniversary tribute to the late Sir Bob Elliott

By Frances Benge – Chief Executive, Cure Kids.

21 /08 / 2021

A year ago today, the global child health sector lost an incredible man. The late Professor Sir Bob Elliott KNZM was a true Kiwi pioneer who helped shape how our nation prioritises the most pressing health issues facing our tamariki.

Fifty years before his passing, Sir Bob had the visionary foresight to address New Zealand’s deterioration in the OECD health ranking, understanding that targeted change must happen. He knew that to enact meaningful change takes financial investment backed by a collective of brainpower and a shared relentless drive for answers.

For Bob, who I had the utmost pleasure of collaborating with in my five years leading Cure Kids, this meant an innate understanding that research must never rest. The world today has rightfully put health at the heart of everyday conversations. And for our country’s most vulnerable – the young and poorly – this pandemic-induced attention comes with both opportunity and a pressure to maintain a laser-like focus on the highest impact work we can possibly carry out.

As we honour the first anniversary of our founder’s death, I can proudly commend our researchers chasing Bob’s vision to improve, extend and save the lives of thousands of Kiwi children via the suite of remarkable research being funded thanks to our amazing supporters.

These projects range from essential grassroots community-based investigations designed to serve the health needs of those most in need, to truly innovative blue-sky hypotheses being researched by scientists and inventors.

One such project is being led by Professor Simon Malpas from the University of Auckland, whose team is inventing and testing a tiny implantable device to measure brain pressure for children living with hydrocephalus – an abnormal build-up of fluid in the brain. Simon’s device is only the size of a few rice grains, yet it will allow carers to remotely monitor brain pressure and potential stint blockage, which will improve treatment, reduce risk and lessen anxiety for parents of children living with hydrocephalus.

Simon’s research could help around 100 Kiwi children diagnosed with the illness each year, including three-year-old Cure Kids ambassador Ben, who lives with both hydrocephalus and spina bifida.

Ben faced two major health disorders even before his birth – but for thousands of other Kiwi kids, they are not born with health issues, but instead struggle daily with health challenges borne out of social deprivation.

This is why in Cure Kids’ now 50th year in operation, we have launched the Elliott-Caughey Fund (named after Sir Bob and his co-founder, the late Dr Ron Caughey) – a $10 million fund entirely targeting research into illnesses linked to deprivation.

I view it as a bittersweet funding pool that our Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee are tasked with allocating; on one hand the special funds will help address some of our most pressing health issues – on the other hand the enormity of the task is daunting, based purely on the statistics in front of us.

Despite our country proving to have some of the highest living standards in the world, this does not translate into high standards of health and wellbeing for our children.

Each year 40,000 Kiwi kids under the age of 14 are hospitalised for poverty-related health conditions.

UNICEF recently ranked the health and wellbeing of New Zealand children 38th out of 41 developed countries. This puts us behind countries like Bulgaria, Chile and Mexico.

Around 40% of 5-year-olds have evidence of tooth decay, with higher rates for Māori and Pasifika children. Hospitalisation for tooth decay is particularly high for children living in areas of high deprivation.

Respiratory conditions are the leading cause of acute admissions to hospital for children, with ‘asthma and wheeze’ the most frequent diagnosis. Māori and Pasifika children, and children living in areas of high deprivation have the highest hospitalisation rates for respiratory conditions.

Similarly, for serious skin infections, hospitalisation rates are highest in Māori and Pasifika children, those younger than five, and children living in areas with high socioeconomic deprivation.

These figures are equally shocking and embarrassing. They also make up the bulk of the evidence Cure Kids is curating for the launch of our second annual State of Child Health Report being launched later in the year, where rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease will become the fourth health benchmark to join what some could be calling New Zealand’s Health Report of Shame.

The newest benchmarks for reference by government and researchers are a stark example of the social inequities we are rightfully calling out – rheumatic fever being a disease eradicated in most OECD nations yet disproportionately affecting Māori and Pasifika in New Zealand, making up 95% of new cases nationally.

While I acknowledge efforts by the government and the private sector to tackle inadequate housing conditions, high living costs, educational inequalities, early medical intervention and prevention seems a no-brainer when we have the talent available in our back yard.

These researchers – who represent doctors, psychologists, youth and community workers and inventors, often devote their entire careers to finding solutions, because like Sir Bob, they know that research never rests.

While New Zealand’s child health research workforce might not receive the same public attention or support of our incredible ‘front line’ workers (though some of them indeed serve as both the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and the safety net preventing the fall) – they deserve tools to prevent such illness happening in the first place.

We can’t thank our amazing donors enough to make this research happen. Red Nose Day this year was truly humbling – we saw the collective belief in the work we’re funding from a range of supportive media partners, some incredible fundraising events through our support network, and of course the generosity of our team of five million.

Because for brave children like young Ben, it is Cure Kids’ heroes like Sir Bob Elliott, Dr Ron Caughey and Professor Simon Malpas who have brought and are continuing to bring the answers for our vulnerable kids. No matter what kind of household a child is born into, they deserve for social inequalities to not be a barrier for living healthy and happy lives.

ENDS

Cure Kids CEO France Benge started her career as a nurse, was a leader in the Pharmaceutical company Pfizer and is committed to the health of kiwi kids.