Jeroen Douwes

Distinguished Professor, Public Health

New Zealand has one of the highest prevalence of respiratory illness in the world, with one in four of our kids affected by asthma.

Jeroen Douwes is leading the charge to change that. He’s investigating the microbes that might help stop the increasing allergies and asthma rates that are stifling our lives.

The Massey University professor is leading a dual assault on disease in occupational health as well as general public health. A top target is allergies and asthma and addressing the question of why New Zealand has some of the highest rates of the respiratory illness in the world.

It was at the world-famous Wageningen University in his native Netherlands where Jeroen Douwes first became interested in investigating links between certain occupations and disease in the workplace.

A study investigating the respiratory health in pig farmers led to Professor Douwes getting knee deep in epidemiology – the study of the causes, distribution and control of disease in populations. He complemented this data-based research with the study of lab-based sciences such as immunology and toxicology.

“Instead of just looking at questionnaires and surveys I also wanted to know more about disease mechanisms,” he says “and apply molecular biology methods traditionally used in studies in mice.”

Professor Douwes joined Massey University in 2001 after initially visiting New Zealand as a postgraduate student on a ‘talent scholarship’ to carry out asthma research at Otago University. When part of his study group moved to Massey, he joined them.

He instigated the installation of a laboratory capable of analysing human samples at the Centre for Public Health Research based at Massey’s Wellington campus. He also developed close links with the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research and Otago’s School of Medicine with the aim of developing a platform of truly interdisciplinary health research in Wellington combining expertise in public health, epidemiology, immunology and clinical research.

One of the most recent funding rounds saw the Health Research Council allocate $3.8 million to the Centre for a range of projects including links between mobile phone and brain cancer in children and whether raw milk lowers the prevalence of asthma and allergies.

 “One of the things I like about doing research in New Zealand is that when you have a good idea things don’t take too long to action them, there’s a can do mentality here that really helps,” he says.