Ironing out deficiencies

Volume 7 Number 1 January 10 - February 13 2011

Dr Sant-Rayn Pasricha has been awarded a Victoria Fellowship that will enable him to travel to Geneva to work in the World Health Organization as part of his research into how to reduce the health risks associated with iron deficiencies.
Dr Sant-Rayn Pasricha has been awarded a Victoria Fellowship that will enable him to travel to Geneva to work in the World Health Organization as part of his research into how to reduce the health risks associated with iron deficiencies.

Research into iron deficiency has won Dr Sant-Rayn Pasricha a Victoria Fellowship, taking him to the WHO in Geneva. Rebecca Scott reports.

Reducing the health risks associated with iron deficiency in children and mothers in developing countries is the focus of research for Dr Sant-Rayn Pasricha of the University of Melbourne, based at the University’s Department of Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Dr Pasricha is the recipient of one of six 2010 Victoria Fellowships from the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development in the Victorian Government.

The Fellowship will enable Dr Pasricha to travel to Geneva to work in the Department for Health and Development at the WHO.

“This is a great step for me and my research. To learn how the World Health Organization (WHO), the central global policy-making body develops its policies, will assist me with my work to make a difference to people who need it most around the world,” Dr Pasricha says.

With a medical background in haematology, the study and clinical management of blood diseases, Dr Pasricha sought to find a way to align his other interests of public health and the health of people living in developing countries, into his research.

“I was looking for a topic which would combine my two interests. As I researched major blood disorders, I realised that anaemia, which is low blood count, is very common in developing countries.”

With nearly four out of every five Indian children having anaemia he was moved to find out more about the condition.

“I discovered that very few researchers have looked into the problem and that there was a lot more to be done.”

Iron deficiency or anaemia is a major global health problem affecting one billion people.

The condition is associated with an increased risk of death in pregnant mothers through hemorrhaging following delivery. In children, it’s associated with impaired mental development, fatigue and lethargy. In young children in particular it causes irritability and poor feeding.

His latest study involved investigating the cause of anaemia in children in rural areas of Southern India.

“Although 80 per cent of children in younger age groups are anaemic with the burden highest in rural areas, no one has ever done a study to find out what the causes are.

“As expected we found iron deficiency is the major cause of anaemia in this population. However, the health of the mother, a family’s wealth and access to food also appeared to have an effect on a child’s susceptibility to anaemia.

“As a result of this study, we believe that iron supplementation as well as strategies to target nutrition in the mother and poverty overall would assist in reducing the levels of iron deficiency.”

Another aspect of the study evaluated the delivery of the national recommendation of iron supplementation of children involved in the study.

“We found that although the Indian Government recommends every child should receive iron supplementation, for a number of reasons fewer than half have.

“We believe that strengthening the iron supplementation program is urgently needed.

During my time at the WHO, I will be working with the group that sets policy for how iron supplementation should be delivered to children, mothers and other groups. Our aim is to study and define how better that could be done in India and worldwide,” Dr Pasricha says.

“I’ll be doing a number of statistical analyses of data to better understand what the evidence says on particular areas of concerns.

“At the same time I will be analyzing data from a randomised trial in iron and micronutrient supplementations in Vietnamese communities, which is being led through the University with Professor Beverley Ann Biggs’s group at the Department of Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“The experience in Geneva will help me to collate the evidence that I have gathered through my primary research in my PhD and help me to use my data to build further health recommendations.

“Overall it’s pretty exciting. As I get more experience with WHO, hopefully I will be able to do larger research studies and get closer to eventually solving some of these big health problems. “