Native Hawaiians tend to live eight to 10 years less than the average resident in the islands.

Thanks to $23 million in federal grant funding, the University of Hawaii is hoping it can help close health disparities that hit Native Hawaiians, Micronesians, Filipinos and other Pacific Islander populations the hardest.

The university is just a few months into hiring people for the research and training center dubbed Ola HAWAII: Health And Wellness Achieved by Impacting Inequalities. Only six other universities were given funding to create similar research centers.

John A. Burns School of Medicine. Kakaako. 8 sept 2015. photogrpah Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Ola HAWAII is based out of the John A. Burns School of Medicine. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

“Sometimes you do a project … and it could potentially sit on the shelf even though you did a great job with it. This is one that will have real meaning in many ways and affect many people’s lives,” said Jerris Hedges, project lead and dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine. “It’s hard for me to contain my enthusiasm.”

Through community-based research, faculty will primarily study ways to combat or prevent diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity. HIV, asthma, PTSD and suicide are among the other areas researchers will focus on.

In addition to studying physical health, researchers will also look at mental health issues. Severe stress and hopelessness can not only create depression, Hedges said, but can cause illness.

To better study health disparities in certain ethnicities, Hedges said researchers will also be studying populations that tend to be in better health such as Japanese, Chinese and white people.

Having such comparison groups can help researchers identify genetic factors, though he said a person’s socioeconomic and educational background can play into overall health.

Multi-Disciplinary Research

The grant, which will be distributed now through 2022, was awarded by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities, a branch of the federal health department’s National Institutes of Health. The grant was officially awarded in September. The center will bring together faculty from disciplines including public health, engineering, social services, cancer research and tropical agriculture.

About 20 UH faculty members are involved with Ola HAWAII so far, though that number is expected to grow as research gets rolling. Many of the people hired to date are based at the Manoa campus, but project leaders are in talks with the West Oahu campus and Hilo’s pharmacy school to see how they can collaborate. Other local higher education institutions are invited to participate, Hedges said.

Jane Chung-Do, associate professor with the UH Office of Public Health Studies, feeds fish at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Waimanalo Learning Center. Courtesy: JABSOM

The $23 million will “employ the next generation of investigators and care providers,” he said, which could bring more talent to the university and, eventually, more federal dollars to continue similar initiatives in the future.

Several people of color have been selected to lead research projects.

“We’re very much looking to … give opportunity to traditionally underrepresented investigators in medicine, help them develop careers and help them interact well with the communities that they will be serving,” Hedges said.

Fighting Health Gaps

Gone are the days when UH research was conducted in an “ivory tower” and handed down to the people, said Noreen Mokuau, a project lead and dean of the UH Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. Ola HAWAII research will be done with the local lifestyle in mind, Mokuau said, factoring in the diverse cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds of Hawaii.

Kalo, or taro, is among the produce grown in the aquaponics research project — a collaboration between CTAHR and the Public Health Studies office. Courtesy: JABSOM

One researcher will study “resiliency” in Native Hawaiian and Micronesian families that have been homeless, but persevered to find shelter or housing. More than 20 percent of homeless people in Hawaii are Native Hawaiian.

“It’s devastating to me. This is our island homeland,” said Mokuau, who is Native Hawaiian. “I feel like, as a Hawaiian, you are so connected to the land. … For Hawaiians, this is the only aina that you have. And the fact that so many of us are dispossessed of the safety of a home is the stuff that makes you cry late at night.”

Another project will track feeding practices of young keiki, since early nutrition can impact health later in life. Native Hawaiian families may not have access to nutrition-dense foods that are best for a baby, she said.

Grant funding will help continue to support the university’s Waimanalo-based aquaponics system for another year. Aquaponics utilizes waste from fish raised in a tank to feed plants grown in water.

The aquaponics program is about more than just growing food for nutrients, said Mokuau. It’s about teaching sustainability and connecting Native Hawaiians with their culture.

Kalo, or taro, which is grown at the Waimanalo farm, represents one’s ancestors, per Hawaiian tradition.

“For Hawaiians, if we can help them link to the beauty of their culture and their history, it’s a way of maybe dealing with the addiction, or the child abuse or the domestic violence,” she said. “For me, it’s much larger than creating a food source, it’s creating a source for self-nurturing and family pride.”

Read more about Ola HAWAII projects, pending approval from NIH, below:

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