Professor Ed Mitchell
Professor Ed Mitchell

10 November 2015

Three thousand New Zealand babies’ lives saved to date, plus many thousands more around the world – and counting.

It’s extraordinary results like this that have seen Cure Kids Professor of Child Health Research Ed Mitchell awarded the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) Beaven Medal at tonight’s Research Honours Dinner in Auckland.

Professor Mitchell led the groundbreaking HRC-funded research in the late 80s and early 90s that showed laying babies on their tummies was a major risk factor for cot death (now known as sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS). He also initiated and led the subsequent ‘back to sleep’ preventative public health programme in New Zealand that is credited with saving so many young lives. Within a short time of the prevention programme initiated here in New Zealand, it was taken up by most western countries. Later SIDS research also led by Professor Mitchell, including the New Zealand SIDS Prevention Study (1991–1993) refined the risk factors, and led to a further significant drop in the number of babies dying.

“When I first started out in this field some thirty years ago, one in every 250 babies in New Zealand were dying each year of what we then called cot death. Within 12 months of our prevention programme being launched, mortality rates had dropped by half,” says Professor Mitchell.

“It’s been very satisfying to see the number of deaths in New Zealand from SIDS drop from 250 babies each year, down to 150, then 70, and now to about 40 per year. However, we’re pretty sure we can get this figure down even further to about 6 deaths per year. That’s our long-term goal and the focus of our current research at the University of Auckland.”

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the Beaven Medal, named after the late Professor Sir Donald Beaven, recognises excellence in translating research into clinical practice, something which Professor Mitchell has “achieved in spades”.

“Professor Mitchell’s leadership in sudden infant death syndrome, both here in New Zealand and overseas, is beyond impressive. His identification of the causes of SIDS is one of the most important discoveries made in health research in New Zealand over the past 25 years, and the public health awareness campaign that followed these findings – in particular, the risk of babies sleeping on their tummies – one of the most effective in saving young lives.”

Professor Mitchell’s latest project, the HRC-funded Nationwide SUDI* Study, is looking at modifiable risk factors for SIDS, particularly those relating to bed sharing and what makes bed sharing safer or more dangerous. Working with Professor Bob Carpenter from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, he has also developed an app that will enable general practitioners to calculate the SIDS risk for specific babies.

The Beaven Medal also recognises Professor Mitchell’s major contributions in other fields, including asthma, childhood obesity, child health and development, Māori and Pacific health, intrauterine growth restriction, and most recently stillbirth.

Professor Mitchell says his “jaw dropped” when told he had been awarded the Beaven Medal.

“I never expected to get recognition in this kind of way. I’ve been beavering away in this area since the mid-1980s, so it’s probably an award for perserverance more than anything!”

Professor Mitchell says he would like to pay tribute to the fantastic work of his SUDI liaison staff who have for the past three years been interviewing every family who has had a baby die suddenly and unexpectedly. He also wished to thank all the families and parents who have been such an integral part of his research, particularly those who have lost babies.

“They’ve opened up to us and told us their stories. It’s through them that we’ve been able to find these associations and launch prevention programmes that have made a real difference.”

Preventing SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)

1) Always lay baby on their back to sleep – not their tummy or side

2) Don’t smoke in pregnancy or around baby

3) Breastfeed baby if at all possible

4) Put baby to sleep alone or in a whahakura or pepi-pod to avoid accidental suffocation

*SUDI, also known as SIDS and as cot death is defined as the sudden and unexplained death of an infant during sleep.


Beaven Medal video 2015 from Health Research Council of NZ on Vimeo.