HOT NORTH and “a passion to make a difference”

The medical researchers involved in a HOT NORTH pilot project and PhD scholarship believe big things could come from small beginnings.

With support from HOT NORTH, physiotherapist and PhD scholar Pamela D’Sylva has teamed up with Menzies School of Health Research and Telethon Kids Institute researchers on a project that could help prevent potentially fatal lung disease in the remote northwest of Australia.

It’s a big problem, with respiratory illness the most common cause of Aboriginal child hospitalisations and respiratory disease responsible for the 12 per cent life-expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In Australia, Caucasians with end-stage bronchiectasis lung disease die at 70.5 years on average compared to only 46.5 years for Aboriginal people.

Pamela D’Sylva has been providing respiratory services in the Pilbara and the Kimberley for ten years, and realised the early warning signs of lung disease were being overlooked in young Aboriginal children, with opportunities to easily fix a serious preventable disease being missed.

“We were not seeing many kids until way down the track, once lung disease was very advanced. I have a burning passion to change that and if we can catch this disease early we can treat it—preventing a very serious and potentially fatal lung disease,” she says.

As a first step, Pamela knocked on many doors to attract research funds to find out just how prevalent chronic wet cough—often the most common symptom of chronic lung disease—was in Aboriginal children in the Kimberley.

The HOT NORTH program responded, granting Pamela a three year PhD scholarship and her colleagues, seed funding for a one year pilot research project.

“The HOT NORTH funds have really opened the door for us to collect the data needed to answer the big questions about how prevalent wet cough is,” Pamela says. “If a child has a wet cough for longer than four weeks, it is often a sign of an underlying lung infection. If that wet cough isn’t treated, it can lead to serious and irreversible illness.”

The HOT NORTH funds will be used in part to pay a local Aboriginal researcher. 

“We are also partnering with the Broome Regional Aboriginal Medical Services and Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services to undertake this research,” Pamela says. 

“A real catalyst for change is when communities are empowered and capacity is built through local Aboriginal people being a part of the research process. I’m privileged to be a part of such a team.”

The Australian Government’s developing northern Australia agenda is helping to build a community of excellence in tropical medicine research in the north. Find out more at Research and innovation on this site.

The government funded HOT NORTH program is building north Australia’s expertise and capacity in tropical medicine.

The Menzies School of Health Research is leading the HOT NORTH program in partnership with James Cook University, Doherty Institute/Melbourne University, Telethon Kids Institute, Marie Bashir Institute/The University of Sydney, the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, Burnet Institute and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

Find out more on the Menzies School of Health Research website at HOT NORTH.

Image: Pamela D’Sylva checks Sarayah Haji-Noor’s lungs, with Sarayah’s mother, Amanda Tomlinson.

Published: 6 February 2018