Asthma scientist: Look after the children

MIKE MATHER
Last updated 05:00 24/06/2013

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She helped create a groundbreaking new drug to battle asthma - but Jilly Evans says the best way of beating the condition is by getting children out of cold and overcrowded houses.

The former Onewhero District High School student has gone on to become a top scientist and a world authority in the eicosanoid field - molecules that control inflammation and immunity - in the United States.

Mrs Evans spent 23 years working for international pharmaceutical company Merck & Co, where she played a key role in the team that developed the anti-asthmatic drug Singulair.

It took her and her team 18 years to develop the drug, which to date has helped more than 110 million people with asthma and allergies in 70 countries around the world, including New Zealand.

While it is an achievement she was extremely proud of, she said asthma is a condition that required a more holistic approach, rather than just drugs and inhalers.

"The environment is a major factor - kids living in overcrowded and cold homes. It was a shock to me that 25 per cent of New Zealand kids are considered deprived and many of them are living in such conditions. We are seeing a lot of illnesses many thought had been consigned to the past - things like bronchitis and TB - that are making a comeback."

Getting governments to introduce policy like warrants of fitness for houses was one way of dealing with the problem - but another factor was raising awareness, she said.

"The majority of New Zealanders just don't realise we have slipped behind in that area. The important thing to remember is that it is not the children's fault. You can say what you like about the adults, but the important thing is to look after the children."

Back in New Zealand to visit family and attend a GPs' conference in Rotorua, Mrs Evans credits her schooling at Onewhero in the 1960s for helping spur her love of science. Her father, Bob Davis, was the school's headmaster, "but I had many wonderful teachers there".

She also retains many friends in the area, including Marjorie Blake - "the mother of my very best friend who knitted me this jumper, which I am still wearing 40 years later".

The creation of Singulair was not an easy achievement, she said.

"It was really exciting to work on something that was really novel and could do a lot of good," she said. "It works because it eliminates one of the inflammatory contributors to asthma.

"There is always a lot of failure and times when you cannot make quite the right molecule. It's a lot of miss and very little hit."

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- Waikato Times

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