New $5 million study to boost children's health by improving housing

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the University of Otago's He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research ...
Ross Giblin/Fairfax NZ

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the University of Otago's He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme in Wellington, has received a $5 million grant to study how to boost children's health by improving housing.

A $5 million study by a team of Wellington researchers aims to boost children's health by improving New Zealand's housing.

The Health Research Council announces its latest round of Government-funded grants on Thursday, including five projects worth nearly $5 million each.

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the University of Otago's He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme in Wellington, received a $4,943,710 five-year grant for her team of 28 researchers to run six trials aimed at lifting housing standards to improve children's health.

Studies included introducing warrant of fitness standards for rental properties in two cities, insulating and warming 600 newborns' homes in Hutt Valley and Wainuiomata, and providing wraparound housing and welfare services to 800 children hospitalised in the wider Wellington region with illnesses linked to poor housing, such as respiratory problems.

Health effects on children living near arterial roads would also be studied, including looking at indoor air quality. A further two trials were extensions of the university's earlier research on efficient and equitable energy use for houses where vulnerable children lived, and household crowding impacts on children's health.

Howden-Chapman, who was also chairwoman of the World Health Organisation's housing and health guidelines development group, said children spent more time inside their homes than adults and were vulnerable to prolonged exposure in unsafe housing, which was why the trials would focus on them.

In the Hutt area, studies showed 2400 children were hospitalised with housing-related illnesses each year and other studies showed babies risked permanent lung damage from living in unhealthy housing.

"We are really concerned that we know children who are in mouldy and damp bedrooms are twice as likely to wheeze in their first year of life."

She believed the studies would prevent babies and children becoming "frequent fliers" with repeat hospital stays.

Selection of two cities for the new rental warrant of fitness trial was yet to be finalised, but negotiations were under way with six councils that had shown interest.

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The new trial would assess impacts of warrant of fitness standards, and would compare results with two control cities without such standards, she said.

Last May, He Kainga Oranga released a report on its rental housing warrant of fitness scheme, piloted in 144 houses in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Only eight houses passed its minimum standards nationwide, including warmth, dryness, mould and dampness, injury risk, sanitation, basic state of repair and basic living needs.

Previously, Wellington City Council had publicly shown support in adopting a rental warrant of fitness scheme.

Health Research Council chief executive Professor Kathryn McPherson said research by Howden-Chapman and her team had a tangible effect on the health of homes and environments.

The team's previous HRC-funded work provided the rationale for the EECA Warm-Up NZ: Heat Smart Programme, which was evaluated as delivering more than $1.5 billion of health benefits.

He Kainga Oranga deputy director Nevil Pierse said a range of social services existed to help families living in low-standard homes, but many struggled to access it. 

A collaboration of Wellington-based social services had been set up to implement the trial targeting hospitalised children, which would run until December 2015 and would offer help such as insulation, curtains, heating and options to reduce crowding, he said.

"It's very silly to have a child come into hospital with something that is housing-related and then send them back to the house."

Last December, Howden-Chapman became the first woman and social scientist to receive the $500,000 Prime Minister's Science Prize for her housing and health research. Her team previously gained widespread international acclaim for their work linking housing and health, which had spanned the past 15 years. 

 - Stuff

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