Niue, part of a global study on the impacts of the climate crisis and heat on human health

Professor Chris Bullen speaking at a public meeting about the intentions of the global study on the impacts of heat on human health

A team of public health doctors from Auckland University was on the island last week to hold consultations with the government and community groups in the preliminary phase of including Niue in a global study on the impacts of heat on human health, as a result of the climate crisis and increasing temperatures.

The team led by Sir Collin Tukuitonga include Professor Chris Bullen and PhD candidate Dr. Noah Blunkley spend the week meeting with government officials, village council representatives, and church groups and held a public forum on Thursday afternoon. On Wednesday morning they met with Cabinet and Premier Dalton Tagelagi who is supportive of the inclusion of Niue in the global study.

The study is funded by Wellcome Trust which aims to identify ways to help mitigate the impacts of climate change on human health using four countries from regions around the world. The same study will be conducted in Burkina Faso (Sub-Saharan Africa), Mexico (Latin America), India (Asia) and Niue (Pacific/Oceania)

Dr. Blunkley said that “Temperatures are going to rise over the next few decades umm in places like Niue and some other regions that we’re working with in this study, the temperatures are going to get higher and so we really need to identify ways to help protect people from those temperature extremes.
“We know that high temperatures can have impacts on people’s health and wellbeing and can affect people’s physiological functioning, increase the risk of certain conditions and diseases like heart attacks, diabetes and also impact people, their sleep their productivity and so if we can identify ways to mitigate some of those negative consequences from heat then that would a great thing”

One way of mitigating heat was used in Africa where a material or a coating is applied to the roofs of houses and in this study, that coating will be applied to half of the occupied houses on the island.
Professor Chris Bullen explained that one of the colleagues who had been doing some work in Africa used a coating on roofs of houses to try to reduce the amount of heat that people are exposed to as temperatures rise all around the world.
“ People are suffering a lot of heat-related illness and so having learned something from that study, we put in a proposal to the Wellcome Trust to run a big study involving four countries in regions around the world. “

There are an estimated 400 occupied houses in Niue, half will have this coating applied on the roof and one of the occupants of every house will wear a smartwatch to monitor their health, comparing the health of people living in the house with the coating and those without it.

Dr. Noah Blunkley, Professor Dr. Chris Bullen and Sir Collin Tukuitonga on arrival last week

On Friday, the team was on News of the Week radio talking about the outcome of their meetings over the week. Sir Collin said that they were very happy with the positive response from the people they met, from government officials, and from the community at large, with a number of people voluntarily offering to start with their houses.

The actual application of the coating materials will need to take place during the dry season so the plan is to wait until the end of the cyclone season in April 2024.

The team will continue to visit Niue in the lead up to the start of the actual study period which will be twelve months of data collection in anticipation of preliminary findings at the end of 2025 or early 2026.

Professor Bullen said that the study also provides some opportunities to build capacity and offer a platform for training development in research. “So we wanted to come here to meet people and understand the context. It’s more a case for us to learn and to share what we know and then see what solutions we find that will work in this context whilst staying true, if you like, to the scientific framework that we have to work with but there will be a lot of opportunity for having this as a platform for training development for Niuean people as well which is one of our sub-objectives, is to build capacity here too.”

During this initial phase of the project, the team from Auckland University shared their views on data ownership recognising that there is no current mechanism in place to determine the use of data collected in Niue but the government has already given it’s support of the study to continue.

Premier Dalton Tagelagi in a statement from the government said that “The weather over the November to March period is starting to feel hotter each season, as part of the effects of climate change. The concept of a coating applied to a roof that may cool the temperature of that building and bring a positive impact on the lives and health of people is an exciting one for us and we look forward to the commencement of the project in 2024”

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