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Dr David Tipene-Leach honoured with Tahunui-a-Rangi Medal

November 13, 2020

Professor Dr David Tipene-Leach with his wife Dr Sally Abel and EIT’s CEO Chris Collins.

The New Zealand Royal Society recognised Dr David Tipene-Leach, Professor Māori and Indigenous at EIT, with the Tahunui-a-Rangi Medal at the Government House in Wellington.

15 years ago, David hit the headlines with a simple yet ingenious invention that changed the infant care behaviour of a nation. The wahakura, a woven flax bassinet, was designed to prevent SUDI (Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy) and create a safe sleep environment for babies while bed sharing. From 2009 to 2015 a 30 percent drop in infant mortality rate was documented. The Ministry of Health began a national roll out of the Safe Sleep programme and District Health Boards got on board quickly.

The device, which was originally aimed at Māori women, quickly became a must-have item for kiwi parents and also gained momentum overseas.

“Te Tahunui-a-Rangi is a fleeting flash of colour and light – a glimpse of beauty, mystery and discovery. So is the ingenuity of the wahakura. Its ingeniousness is in using tikanga Māori to mitigate SUDI risk by the creation of a safer sleep environment,” David said on receiving the award.

“I am personally grateful to have been involved with a myriad of health workers and weavers in three iterations of sudden infant death prevention. The Māori SIDS Prevention Programme took ‘control of the message’ in the 90s, the wahakura programme took ‘control of the intervention’ in the 2000s and a clinic where Mums learn to weave all the accoutrements of pregnancy will ‘take control of the antenatal space’ in the next few years ahead of us.”

The Chair of the Royal Society Te Apārangi Academy, Charlotte MacDonald, told Radio NZ that the awards are a moment where the light shines on researchers like Dr David Tipene-Leach that are working away for a long time in their research areas and often below the radar. 

For EIT’s CEO Chris Collins the recognition underscores David’s hard work and tireless efforts to ensuring positive Māori health outcomes, “David dedicated his life to serving Māori communities and the wahakura is a ground breaking invention that makes a real impact on our people. We are proud to have David on our EIT team.”