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View of Lahaina destroyed by August 2023 fire

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa research efforts to analyze the short- and long-term health effects of exposure to the deadly Maui wildfires were shared with the Hawaiʻi House Committee on Health and Homelessness on January 24.

three people sitting on a desk
UHERO Professor Ruben Juarez, JABSOM Professor Alika Maunakea and UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham spoke to a House committee about the Maui Wildfire Exposure Study. (Photo credit: Hawaiʻi House of Representatives YouTube Channel)

The team of researchers, led by Ruben Juarez (UH Economic Research Organization (UHERO)–HMSA Distinguished Professor of Health Economics) and Alika Maunakea (professor of epigenomics, John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), Department of Anatomy, Biochemistry, and Physiology) in partnership with several units at UH, is actively recruiting Lahaina and Kula residents to be part of the study. Approximately 200 have already signed up, with a goal of at least 1,000 to participate.

Committee Chair and State Rep. Della Au Belatti thanked the researchers and noted that the House focused on the physical needs of individuals immediately after the wildfires and left out the health aspect.

“One of the important things is with the follow up now and to be able to spotlight it, we really want to avoid the mistakes that were done after other big tragedies that we’ve seen like 9/11 where they created health registries years after the disaster and really needed to start to capture people closer to the incident,” Au Belatti said.

Learn more about the Maui Wildfire Exposure Study and register to participate

The committee also heard from some of the community partners in this project, including Roots Reborn and Maui Medic Healers Hui.

“This collaboration allows us to enhance participation within underrepresented populations,” said Genesis Gil of Roots Reborn. “Additionally, the presence of leaders such as Dr. Juarez and Dr. Maunakea who visually and culturally resonate with the community’s aim to be included fosters a sense of trust.”

“Our community is hurting as you all know. There has been irreparable harm, but this study gives us an opportunity to look at working towards the restoration of pono for our ʻāina and for her people,” said Noelani Ahia of Maui Medic Healers Hui.

Same-day results, connecting to support

Some of the questions from the committee centered around the need for a quick turnaround on the data. Juarez, Maunakea and UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham shared that participants will receive results the same day as their participation in the cohort, and will be able to monitor additional results and feedback in real time.

Related story: UH Mānoa launches Maui wildfire health study, invites participants to join, December 2023

“We’re including information to communities that are participating in the study so that allows them to learn about their own health immediately so that they can get support,” Maunakea said. “We actually provide them a wrap-around service; so connect them to specific resources to the community that are relevant to cover that support.”

The research team will conduct tests and collect data to examine exposures to environmental hazards, and then repeat the tests annually over the next five to 10 years, possibly even longer, to link these exposures to long-term health outcomes. Participants must be adults who resided or worked in the area affected by the wildfires in Maui in August 2023, and are expected to be in Hawaiʻi for at least five years.

Participation information

The first recruitment events are January 26 (J. Walter Cameron Center, Wailuku) and January 27 (Royal Lahaina Resort, Lahaina), with more planned. Visit the website for more information and to register.

This project is being funded through a $250,000 grant from the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, and the researchers are seeking additional donors and funders to expand and support the cohort longitudinally. This public impact research project is the result of an ongoing partnership between UHERO and JABSOM.

—By Marc Arakaki

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