Health | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Accessibility links


The Australian Centre for Pacific Islands Research engages in research to address prevalent health issues in the Pacific Islands. Through our collaborative efforts with local communities, we strive to prevent and combat health challenges by developing innovative and culturally sensitive solutions.

Our research spans a wide spectrum of health-related issues, aiming to not only understand the root causes but also to implement practical interventions and management that resonates with the unique needs of the Pacific. By fostering partnerships and incorporating diverse perspectives, we work towards creating sustainable health strategies that contribute to the overall wellbeing of Pacific Islands peoples.

Research Projects

Maternal folate intake, availability, and the impacts of deficiency on maternal and child health in Vanuatu  

2023 –2026 

Despite a global decline in neonatal and infant mortality rates, Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) still face significantly higher rates. Micronutrient deficiency, particularly in folic acid (FA), contributes to adverse birthing outcomes, such as stillbirth and congenital anomalies. A common example of this association, is the link between folic acid (FA) intake and development of neural tube defects (NTDs), severe abnormalities of the brain and spine that develop in utero. Adequate maternal FA intake reduces NTD incidence by up to 90%.

While countries like PNG, Solomon Islands, and Fiji have adopted mandatory FA fortification, Vanuatu has not. My project aims to assess the FA intake and identify the incidence of neural tube defects (NTDs) among Ni-Vanuatu women, addressing a critical gap in knowledge.

This PhD project aims to establish the average FA intake of women and identify the incidence of NTDs amongst Ni-Vanuatu peoples. The research is part of a wider study, the MaMi Project, which explores maternal micronutrients and maternal and child health health in Vanuatu. Fieldwork conducted in October 2023 involved interviews with 470 Ni-Vanuatu women on Efate Island, and subsequent analysis was presented at the Vanuatu National Health Symposium. Future plans include a return to Efate in September 2024 for a comprehensive review of birthing records and additional maternal health surveys in rural communities.


Woman Umbrella Vanuatu

Project team: Ms Eliza Kitchener (PhD candidate); Supervisors: Dr Georgia Kafer, Dr Barnaby Dixson, and Dr Rachael Thurecht

Funding: Research Training Program scholarship provided by the Australian Government to the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Woman With Her Baby In Traditional Skirt Vanuatu

Project team: Dr Georgia Kafer, Dr Barnaby Dixson, Dr Rachael Thurecht and Ms Eliza Kitchener from UniSC

Partners: Dr Jenny Stephens, Mr Rex Turi, Dr Matt Cornish and Ms Nerrida Hinge from the Vanuatu Ministry of Health and Emma Dorras from Wan Smolbag (NGO).

Funding: UniSC Amount: $50,000

The MaMi Project: Investigating maternal micronutrient availability and impacts in Vanuatu.

2023 - 2024

Maternal (Ma) micronutrient (Mi) deficiencies refer to the suboptimal intake of critical minerals and vitamins peri-conception and during pregnancy. In utero, the fetus sources micronutrients from the maternal diet, delivered via the mothers’ blood to the placenta. Maternal micronutrient deficiencies (MDs) increase the risk of fetal growth restriction and congenital anomalies which directly increase risks of fatal preterm birth, stillbirth, perinatal and infant deaths of which Vanuatu has disproportionately high rates.

Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICT) peoples are at increasing risk of disability and death caused by non-communicable diseases attributed to malnutrition and MDs. Children born in PICTs are on average seven times more likely to be stillborn or die perinatally or as infants relative to neighbouring countries.

The MaMi (Bislama for “mum”) project focuses on Vanuatu. Partnering with colleagues from the Vanuatu Ministry of Health, the project aims to develop a strong partnership with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health (MoH) and local non-government organisations (NGOs) to enhance local research capacity and UniSCs reputation in PICTs such as Vanuatu; determine approximate micronutrient intakes of reproductive aged women in urban, semi-rural and remote Vanuatu; and record Ni-Vanuatu experiences of birth complications, stillbirth, and perinatal/infant loss in urban, semi-rural and remote areas.


Samoan seaweed recipe book and resource suite development

2023 - 2024

Seaweed provides direct benefits to the health and wellbeing of local communities, as well as income opportunities for women.

In this project, an interdisciplinary research team are working together to develop a series of assets for a Samoan seaweed recipe book for Samoan / Pacific Island communities. These assets are varied, including seaweed facts, recipes, nutrition analysis, food photographs, impact stories, value chain opportunities, sustainable harvesting methods. The team includes undergraduate students from the disciplines of nutrition and dietetics; creative writing; and design.

The project developed from the 2020-2021 project 'Improving nutrition through women’s and men’s engagement in the seaweed food chain in Kiribati and Samoa'.

Project team: Dr Libby Swanepoel; Dr Lee McGowan; Ms Courtney Anderson; Mr Blake Cawthan; Ms Catherine Wilkinson; and Ms Phoebe Child.

Project team: Dr Libby Swanepoel; Dr Lee McGowan; Ms Courtney Anderson; Mr Blake Cawthan; Ms Catherine Wilkinson; and Ms Phoebe Child.

Banana Stall Vanuatu

Project team: Dr Sarah Burkhart (project leader), Dr Dana Craven, Ms Bridget Horsey, Ms Jenna Perry, Ms Tarli O’Connell, Dr Yuchan Zhou, Ms Tara McKenzie and Prof Steven Underhill.

Funding:  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019, $221,000 (AUD).

Gathering evidence and supporting multi-stakeholder engagement on the role of diets and food systems in the prevention of obesity and non-communicable diseases in Pacific Island Countries (Fiji)

2019 - 2020

Nutrition transition in Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, has had significant impacts on human health. In collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN), this project provided evidence-based data on nutrition and health outcomes in Fiji and connections to the Fijian food system.

The project involved examining local food environments, including availability of and accessibility to food, school food environments, and mapping the fresh food system. We explored food consumption in select population groups and investigated the impact of COVID-19 on dietary behaviours.

We also developed an understanding of how the multisector policy landscape influences dietary behaviours. An important component of this project is the identification and use of entry points for policy dialogue. A key outcome of this project will be a roadmap outlining opportunities for future research and actions to inform a comprehensive and evidence-based approach for maintaining a healthy weight and  preventing non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

We explored how the multisector policy landscape shapes dietary behaviours, emphasising identification of entry points for policy dialogue. The project produced a roadmap highlighting opportunities for research and actions to support a holistic, evidence-based approach to maintaining a healthy weight and preventing non-communicable diseases (NCDs).



UniSC takes action to support achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's)

  • Goal 1: No poverty
  • Goal 2: Zero hunger
  • Goal 3: Good health and wellbeing
  • Goal 14: Life below water
  • Goal 15: Life on land
  • Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals