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A breath of fresh air for Indigenous kids

By Leanne Miles

Dr Michael Binks graduated with a PhD at the Charles Darwin University ceremony last month Dr Michael Binks graduated with a PhD at the Charles Darwin University ceremony last month

Research by a Charles Darwin University PhD graduate into a respiratory disease that hospitalises Indigenous children throughout the Northern Territory will help these kids breathe easier.

With an alarming 20 per cent of NT Indigenous children admitted to hospital suffering acute lower respiratory tract infection (ALRI) in their first year of life, Michael Binks’ research through the Menzies School of Health Research is helping to guide future strategies for ALRI prevention.

“Respiratory diseases are a significant health problem in the Territory, representing the largest cause of preventable mortality in infants and the most common reason for hospitalisation in children under four years of age,” Dr Binks said.

After working in Indigenous health for more than a decade, he said he decided to merge his interests in natural medicine and nutritional research in a PhD, fascinated by how nutritional science could help to improve health by manipulating the immune system with improved nutrition.

“With unprecedented rates of ALRI in Indigenous kids in the NT and current research suggesting vitamin D is associated with ALRI in a number of Indigenous populations including those in India, the United States and New Zealand, I was intrigued,” he said.

“Research also suggests that populations with darker skin produce less vitamin D in response to sunshine.”

During his PhD research, Dr Binks investigated vitamin D, as a known defender of the immune system and its possible role in reducing current levels of ALRI in Indigenous infants.

“I followed a cohort of Indigenous mothers and infants from pregnancy to seven months of age,” he said.

“While vitamin D levels were normal during most of the pregnancy, they dropped sharply towards term and four in five of the Indigenous infants were born with cord blood vitamin D insufficiency. Even more interesting was that significantly lower cord blood vitamin D concentrations were found among infants subsequently hospitalised with an ALRI compared to those who were not.”

This would be one of the first studies to characterise vitamin D levels among Indigenous mothers and their infants.

“Vitamin D insufficiency is modifiable by simple supplementation strategies,” he said. “This preliminary research provides evidence in support of future trials of vitamin D supplementation for the prevention of respiratory infections among Indigenous infants.”

Dr Binks graduated with a PhD at the Charles Darwin University October ceremony. His thesis was entitled “Prevention of Acute Respiratory Infections among Indigenous Infants of the Northern Territory”.