Htin’s “calling” to tackle TB in vulnerable communities
With the world focused on fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the research being undertaken on other long-established diseases killing thousands of people globally every day.
Htin Lin Aung, who came to New Zealand from Myanmar as an international student more than 20 years ago, is now a highly-respected researcher devoting his time and skills to help combat one of the biggest killers of them all – tuberculosis (TB).
Htin has been based in Dunedin ever since arriving at the University of Otago in 2001 to study for his BSc. But it was a chance encounter with a TB patient when he was home on holiday during his post-graduate studies which gave his education journey real direction. “I realised that even though he was getting treatment, it might not be enough for him to survive. I knew that I had found my calling.”
In 2020, there were an estimated 10 million cases of TB and 1.5 million deaths worldwide. As an infectious killer, it was second only to Covid-19.
“Every minute three people somewhere in the world die of TB. I want to use my researchskills to try and help,” he says. “If I can help to reduce that to one person every minute, then that’s a significant difference.”
While New Zealand has about 300 cases of TB each year and is considered a low-prevalence country in terms of overall numbers, Māori and Pasifika communities are disproportionately affected and represent the vast majority of New Zealand-born cases.
Reducing health inequities
Htin says the overarching theme of his research is reducing health inequities. “I don’t believe we should have these kinds of inequities in New Zealand. I am working with clinicians, doctors, and with the affected communities to address them.”
With a BSc (Hons) in Genetics, a PhD in Microbiology, and years of research experience, all gained in New Zealand, Htin sees his work as a way of giving back to the community which supported him in his early days as an international student.
Now a Rutherford Discovery Fellow and Associate Dean Pacific Research at the University of Otago, he spent his first three years on the campus living in Cumberland College and says it was an important time in his life. “There was a sense of belonging - that we were all in this community together - and that has heavily influenced my research thesis.
“When I arrived, I had no idea where my New Zealand education would take me. But it really changed my way of thinking. It allowed me to work out who I am and what I want to do. I realised that I wanted to give back to the community.”
While there’s still a long way to go with Htin’s research, he has already established that there are bacterial variants of TB which only affect Māori and Pasifika. “The big challenge now is to determine why they only impact specific communities. We need to dig much deeper.
“I hope that, through my research, we will better understand TB from the perspective of the affected communities, and we will be able to create a culturally responsive intervention.”
Htin believes this collaborative approach can serve as a blueprint for other countries where indigenous communities also suffer high rates of TB, such as in Australia.
Empowerment through education
He is grateful for the prestigious research fellowships he has been awarded which have allowed him to undertake his meaningful work. They include a Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship from the New Zealand Health Research Council in 2017 and his current Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi.
My New Zealand education trained me for this kind of work, but the additional support from the research community really helped me to establish my career.
“Now I have the chance to pass on the support and empowerment I received on my journey to the next generation of students. Whether they are local students or international students, I am always there to help them. I think that’s the way it should be.”
New Zealand is now a home away from home for Htin, who has spent more than half his life living here. He is married to Khine, who is also Burmese, and together they are raising their seven-year-old son Oakgar, who he describes as a “real Kiwi kid”.
Htin’s advice to his students is always to do what they love. “Follow your heart, and if you don’t know what you want to do, don’t be afraid to find out.
“New Zealand offers a world-class education, the freedom to explore and the opportunities to achieve.”
*Photo at top of page: Dr Htin Lin Aung and Callum August in the lab