by Chris Tobin
A world-leading New Zealand study on methamphetamine’s effects on children has ground to a halt because of a lack of funding.
“Our application through the New Zealand Health Research Council was turned down this year, with one reviewer suggesting it really wasn’t a significant problem in New Zealand,”Associate Prof Trecia Wouldes of Auckland University told the Timaru Courier.
Prof Wouldes led the study to determine the impact on unborn children’s development as a result of their mothers taking meth, which compared one group who took meth during their pregnancies with another who did not.
She has monitored children born in Auckland and initially worked in collaboration with researchers in the United States.
Prof Wouldes said there were significant differences between “meth babies” and those whose mothers had not been using the drug.
“At birth [meth] babies are smaller. They also show signs of dysregulation. They are harder to arouse and have poor reflexes and generally are harder to manage.
“Over the first three years of their lives meth-exposed babies lagged behind in fine motor – grasping objects – and gross motor – walking, sitting, crawling.”
She said prior to starting school such children were also likely to have problems regulating their behaviour.
“Which means they may be more disruptive in the classroom and in some children, very difficult to manage.”
She found schools could be “a bit overwhelmed” by the problem.
South Canterbury Primary Principals’ Association president Steve Zonnevylle said there was not yet widespread evidence of the effects of meth in South Canterbury primary schools.
“But schools are aware that this is likely to be an issue for all of us at some stage and that when this happens schools will work closely with the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) service, Ministry of Education and Health agencies to meet needs.”
Prof Wouldes said they tried to refer children to specific services at the age of 4 and a-half when problems were encountered.
“For instance, we assessed their vision and provided them with referrals for glasses.
“We have also made referrals to speech and language therapists and for behavioural intervention.
“Some schools are being proactive but they would like more information from our research.”
With the meth problem escalating around the country, Prof Wouldes was asked if enough was being done at a national level to address the issue.
She said determining where funding should go to fight the problem was complex.
“Police are working hard to stop imports and of course adults need drug rehabilitation.
“Meth is an insidious drug and the way to address it is with prevention and intervention with women and children so that we don’t create ongoing generations of substance users.”
She said her research could provide information on how to design interventions targeting the early effects of the drug, “so that affected children are provided with preventive interventions that specifically target the deficits that are the result of prenatal exposure but also the effects of living in a home where there may be ongoing drug use, maternal mental illness and poverty”.
She said getting help early was important since research had shown early intervention was more effective than waiting until adolescence or adulthood, when early problems turned into drug abuse, conduct disorder, mental illness as well as other health problems.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said meth abuse continued to be the fastest-growing illicit drug problem worldwide. New Zealand and Australia had the highest prevalence of meth-type substance use at 2.1% and 2.7% respectively.