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Otago appoints international health research head

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Otago appoints international health research head

A gifted clinical epidemiologist has returned from frontline infectious disease research in Africa to head New Zealand’s first Centre for International Health.

Philip Hill has been appointed as the University of Otago’s inaugural McAuley Professor of International Health and Director of the new Centre.

The Centre’s aim is to contribute to improving the health and well-being of people in developing countries through research and postgraduate training. There will be a particular focus on the needs of the Pacific region.

Both the Centre and the McAuley Chair were established as part of the University’s Leading Thinkers initiative following a $1.5m gift by the Sisters of Mercy. Their donation, made through Mercy Hospital Dunedin, is being matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the Government under its Partnerships for Excellence programme.

Announcing the appointment, University Vice-Chancellor Professor David Skegg says that Professor Hill has an impressive record of undertaking significant research on infectious disease problems in developing countries.

“I am delighted that we are able to appoint someone of Professor Hill’s calibre to a role which will help to meet our University’s declared commitment to contribute to international progress.”

Professor Hill was born in Dunedin and spent most of his childhood overseas before his family settled in Auckland when he was 13. Between 2001 and 2007, he worked in the Bacterial Diseases Research Programme at the UK’s world-renowned Medical Research Council Laboratories in The Gambia.

In 2003, he became head of the programme’s tuberculosis research group. He has been an investigator in major research projects into TB and other life-threatening diseases such as childhood pneumonia. This research linked together field, clinical and laboratory work.

Professor Hill is a graduate of the Auckland medical school. Before going to Africa, he trained in both public health and infectious diseases at Auckland and Wellington and holds fellowships in both specialties. In 2006, he earned a doctorate for research evaluating new generation diagnostic tests for TB infection and disease.

Professor Hill says he is looking forward to the challenge of making a significant contribution – and one with a distinctly New Zealand flavour – to improving international health outcomes.

“One of our defining national traits is the desire to first consider how we can enable and help others, instead of blindly pursuing our own immediate ambitions. It’s this sort of approach that will guide how we work with developing countries to build their research capabilities,” says Professor Hill.

He plans to establish a network of researchers at the University with expertise in different disciplines to work together to design and conduct international research projects.

The Centre will also offer research-based postgraduate training and qualifications to people from developing countries in Asia, the Pacific and Africa, so they can become leaders at home, he says.

“Our Master of Public Health and PhD training will be largely based in the students’ own countries and will involve research aimed at their health priorities,” he says.

The Centre will focus on establishing long-term research and training collaborations, including strategic partnerships within New Zealand with the Government and other institutions.

As well as competing for international research funding, the Centre is seeking to raise money to support fellowships, scholarships and other projects. Baltimore-based Otago alumnus Dr John MacGibbon has already donated US$22,000 towards a scholarship that will help further the Centre’s work, he says.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Health Sciences) Professor Don Roberton warmly welcomed Professor Hill’s appointment.

“Professor Hill will prove a very valuable addition to Otago, and I am delighted that he has chosen to join our University. He has an excellent research background, and a deep understanding of the needs of the developing world.

“Under his leadership, a wide range of relevant expertise at the University can now be drawn together to develop important new initiatives in International Health,” Professor Roberton says.

The Centre will be able to tap into the considerable public health and international health research strengths found within the University’s medical school campuses in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington, he says.

“The Department of Human Nutrition also has a proven track record in undertaking a variety of international health-related research. Other groups with expertise relevant to the new Centre include the Poverty, Inequality and Development research cluster in the Division of Humanities,” he says.