Research looks into Māori diabetes and cancer links

By Rukuwai Tipene-Allen

Damning statistics show Māori experience cancer and diabetes far too often. Now new research aims to reveal what's behind the stats and the way to improve them.

Māori are twice as likely to develop cancer as non-Māori. Data also shows Māori adults were about 1.5 times as likely as non-Māori adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes after the age of 25 in 2013/14; that is, the self-reported prevalence of type 2 diabetes for Māori was about 50% higher than that for non-Māori. 

Dr Jason Gurney says Māori don't want to be highly represented in cancer statistics and don't want to be more likely to get diabetes. He also says it doesn't have to be like this.

Dr Gurney is a recipient of Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) funding. HRC is responsible for managing the government’s investment in health research. He has been granted $800,000 to explore the growing crisis of diabetes and cancer concurrence and its impact on people with cancer.

One of the focuses of the funding this year is research into more equitable access for lung cancer screening for Māori. 

This round of funding sees 31 general project grants funded to the tune of $36.64 million. Five Rangahau Hauora Māori grants will receive $5.91 million,  $5.79 million is going to five Pacific project grants and just under $20 million is for four programme grants.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand invests about $120 million a year in research to improve the quality, cost-effectiveness and sustainability of New Zealand’s health system.

Māori health realities

Hei Āhuru Mōwai is a national network committed to eliminating cancer inequities between Māori and non-Māori. Its chief executive, Moahuia Goza, says cancer is one of Māori's biggest challenges and this needs to change. She says the cause of the high representation of Māori in the shocking statistics can be traced back to colonisation and the loss of land. 

Dr Gurney's research aims to learn something about it. The research over two years will look at how both of those conditions are increasing and how they can be diagnosed together. It will consider how it may look in the next 20-25 years. 

This is where the Māori Health Authority could be effective. Health Minister Andrew Little acknowledges "major gaps" in Māori health and says the health authority will open up an opportunity for leadership and will give a transparent and explicit look at the realities of Māori health. 

“Our plan for dealing with this includes looking at why that is happening and finding effective ways to deal with it. Dr Gurney’s research will help, and will also allow us to predict how many people are likely to have both diseases in future so we can plan for that." Little says.

Goza says racism needs to be removed from every part of the system and an authentic look at tino rangatiratanga will lead to a kāhui Māori overseeing the entire health system. 

Referring to history, Gurney says the health authority "needs to be set up to succeed and not fail".

The minister is expecting to hear an update on the Māori Health Authority in the next week.