Improving the health outcomes of babies is one of the key goals of new research examining the impacts of smoking and obesity during pregnancy.
The project is being led by Associate Professor Heinrich Weber and has been made possible by almost $80,000 in funding from the Clifford Craig Foundation.
In an Australian first, the project, taking place in Tasmania, will evaluate the impact of carbon monoxide monitoring and obesity interventions during pregnancy, on the outcomes of babies.
Tasmania's North-West continues to have some of the highest rates of smoking during pregnancy in Australia.
According to the latest national core maternity indicators from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2018 about 14 per cent of Tasmanian women smoked during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, compared to the national average of 9.2 per cent.
Further, while smoking rates are declining overall, the rate of decline remains the lowest in North-West Tasmania, with no significant decline since 2013. Associate Professor Weber said it was a concerning trend, that had far-reaching implications.
"We know that the environment of the unborn baby during pregnancy could have long-lasting effects and be associated with chronic disease in adulthood," he said.
"It has been well recognised that events in early life, foetal programming, influence the development of chronic disease in adult life. Further, lung development during pregnancy affects respiratory disease and health in later life.
"Babies born to mothers have impaired lung function which tracks throughout life, they are at higher risk of wheezing and asthma, and have also been associated with COPD [Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in adult life. Pregnancy presents an opportunity to influence not only the immediate health outcomes of babies, but also chronic disease in adulthood."
Originally trained as a paediatrician in South Africa, specialising in paediatric respiratory medicine, Associate Professor Weber is now the clinical leader of the paediatric departments at the North West Regional and Mersey Community hospitals.
His latest research project builds on two programs already being rolled out in the Tasmanian North-West region, aimed at addressing major issues during pregnancy.
The first study was led by dietician Sharon Luccisano, who looked at introducing low cost interventions during pregnancy, such as exercise and dietary interventions, to address obesity. Shortly, the team will also be introducing carbon monoxide monitoring during pregnancy to partly address the issue of smoking in pregnancy.
"Carbon monoxide monitoring is basically a test whereby you blow into a handheld device and it provides an immediate reading of carbon monoxide level. Carbon monoxide is one of the by-products of detecting smoking and other exposures such as faulty heating or cooking appliances," Associate Professor Weber explained.
"The carbon monoxide value will show us immediately the level of carbon monoxide the unborn baby is exposed to. It's been found elsewhere that more mothers will then take up referral to smoking cessation. There are some that even reduce their smoking because they have now seen the values.
"Because we generally know that smoking cessation programs don't work very well. But that's at least a start in identifying the problem. The next problem is obviously then how to best address it."
Associate Professor Weber will follow up on the babies born in the region to assess the outcomes of the interventions. He will be looking at the immediate outcomes of these babies and then follow them up with them in the first year of life.
He will also be collaborating with a number of other researchers, including the research unit of Dr Sukhwinder Sohal.
And, if the interventions have been proven successful, he said it could have immediate positive health implications for participants and their unborn children.
"Initial studies among school children in North-West Tasmania showed a higher prevalence of asthma, and further analyses showed a link with smoking during pregnancy," he said.
"Also, in another study we found that the smoking during pregnancy and obesity during pregnancy are two of the most common conditions during pregnancy that could contribute to poorer outcomes in babies.
"As these are relatively low cost interventions, it could have wider appeal and realistically implemented into statewide antenatal settings, and similar regions worldwide."
Associate Professor Weber was a among a group of Tasmanian researchers recently announced as recipients of the Clifford Craig Foundations 2021 medical research grants, with six new projects to share between $312,617 in funding.
On top of existing commitments, the foundation will contribute more than $680,000 towards medical research in Tasmania's North and North-West in 2021.
Associate Professor Weber said financial support for ongoing medical research was absolutely vital, particularly in regional areas with poorer health outcomes.
"Funding like this allows us to address our local concerns and hopefully improve outcomes for children in resource limited areas," he said.
"Generally, medical research is often just done in the big centres and these regional areas are not prioritised when it comes to this research.
"That's where the Clifford Craig Foundation plays quite an important role of facilitating this."