Ageing populations, together with a global epidemiological transition, are shifting health priorities in almost all places toward non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including mental disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Adolescence represents an ideal opportunity to respond to this looming crisis as health and development in this period predicts almost all aspects of later-life physical and mental health.
The new Centre for Research Excellence (CRE) on Driving Global Investment in Adolescent Health, led by Professor George Patton, Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, unites 20 researchers nationally and internationally on this important topic.
Other University of Melbourne chief investigators include Professor Susan Sawyer, Professor Stuart Kinner, Dr Peter Azzopardi and Associate Professor Nicola Reavley.
In partnership with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and Burnet Institute, and others across the country, this world-class team has been actively engaged in driving an international adolescent health agenda for more than 15 years.
“There is very little focus in the world of global health on the age range of 5 to 24 years,” Professor Patton said.
“These are foundational years, in terms of health and human development, and they are the parents of the next generation,” he said.
“This CRE is designed to begin to lay some of the technical foundations to drive policy and development and establish the evidence, in terms of what strategies are most effective, particularly in low-resource settings, in priority areas such as mental health, suicide, injuries and violence and NCD risks.”
Professor Patton said demographic change, technology, conflict and migration, and rapid shifts in nutrition and lifestyle have emerged as new drivers of adolescent health.
An investment in adolescent health can reverse early-life deficits and has the potential to bring a triple dividend of reduced death and disability in adolescence; healthier trajectories across the life-course; and the best possible start to life for the next generation.
“We estimated between 95-99% of all research in the 0-19 years age group focused only on those aged 0-4 years,” Professor Patton said.
“There have been decades of investment in the early years,” he said.
“We have barely begun to invest in later childhood and adolescence.”
The most significant barrier to investment is technical, in terms of defining priority health needs and populations and understanding what responses will be most cost-effective in a given context.
“Our CRE has a global health focus, and our two priority countries in the region are China and Indonesia,” Professor Patton said.
“Domestically we will focus on young Indigenous people and those in the youth justice system,” he said.
Professor Patton said the five-year research program will provide decision-makers in policy, donors and program implementers with the information needed to make the best decisions about investments for adolescent health.
“This CRE will build on our strong international connections including with UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and the World Bank,” Professor Patton said.