The Birth of the Dunedin Study

 

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study was designed to investigate broader questions of child health and development, but was not originally conceived as a long-term study (nobody then involved would have guessed that the children would be followed into adulthood!). The original idea was simply to locate a one-year birth cohort who had been studied at birth by Dr Buckfield and to invite them to return for an assessment at age three. The aims were to study the nature and prevalence of some developmental and health problems in three-year-olds, and some of the factors associated with those problems (e.g. some perinatal, family and experiential factors).

The resources for the Study were scarce. The Founding Director, Dr Phil A. Silva, was assisted by a part-time secretary, a group of volunteers from the university staff and five young medical doctors whose family commitments meant that they chose not to work full-time. Several dozen volunteers from the community assisted with locating the Study members, carrying out clerical and data processing work, looking after the children and parents, and doing some of the interviewing. Small donations and assistance from various sources helped stretch the limited resources, and accommodation was found in the old Presbyterian manse and Sunday school halls at Knox Church. There were no funds to pay the modest rent at first; later it was paid by the National Children's Health Research Foundation.

A one-year birth cohort was selected for the Study. Those born in the first three months of 1972 were used as a trial sample, with the birth cohort comprising all those born between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973. The one-year birth cohort was selected because it was expected to yield a sample of about 1000 children. This number was similar to that included in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Thousand Families Study, UK, and was considered large enough to allow study of groups of children with the more common disorders. For example, a disorder with a 3 per cent prevalence rate should result in about 30 children with that disorder in the sample. Another consideration in selecting the sample size was the limited number of personnel and scarce resources available to carry out the Study. During 1975 and the first month of their third birthday, this involved carrying out a range of assessments on the children. The descriptive results were written up and presented to the Medical Research Council in 1976 in an extensive, unpublished report entitled “A Thousand Dunedin Three Year Olds”.

In 1977, the Medical Research Council awarded the first of three five-year research programme grants to allow the Study members to be assessed every two years to age 15, then again at age 18. In 1990, the Medical Research Council was disestablished and the Health Research Council of New Zealand was formed in its place. The new Council allowed the continuation of the previous Medical Research Council grant to the end of 1991, then extended it to the end of 1992. A series of new project grants was then awarded to extend the Study for five years from 1993. These grants, plus funding from the Accident Rehabilitation Compensation and Insurance Corporation of New Zealand (ACC) and the United States National Institutes for Mental Health, enabled the Study to continue through to 1996.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand has continued to fund the core Rresearch Unit as well as a number of projects within the Study since then. The Study has also attracted grants from a variety of other funding bodies including the Departments of Education and Health, the Asthma Foundation of New Zealand, the Otago Medical Research Foundation, the New Zealand Cancer Society, the National Children's Health Research Foundation, the Deafness Research Foundation, the Foundation for the Newborn, the IYC Telethon Trust, the Child and Youth Development Trust, the Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council, the National Heart Foundation, the Neurological Foundation, the J.R. McKenzie Trust Board and IBM (New Zealand) Ltd. Funding has also been received from the UK Medical Research Council, the US National Institutes for Mental Health, Dental and Craniofacial Health, Child Health and Human Development as well as Aging.