17 January 2012

Community health observatory kicks off in Malaysia - a new UCPH collaboration

The University of Copenhagen (UCPH) now collaborates with Monash University Malaysia on SEACO - a community health observatory. 70,000 people in the Malaysian district of Segamat will be invited to join the project that is taking off now in January 2012 and will give a unique insight to how e.g. culture, family, jobs and the economy shape the transition in life style

In the following weeks the 70,000 inhabitants of the semi-rural district Segamat in Johor, Malaysia will receive an invitation to be part of a large-scale public health study.  The project will follow the life of all residents in the district in order to better understand how social and cultural factors including family life, economy, and politics influence the health in the community. These are determinants that usually are very difficult to capture in a study and SEACO gives us this unique opportunity.

A community health observatory 

"When we call SEACO a ‘community health observatory' it is because it will provide us insight into the range of multiple social factors outside the health system that determine life, diseases, death and recovery. So far we only have a blurred picture of these determinants because they arise in a complex combination of many things", explains Professor Maximilian de Courten from the School of Global Health. His working area is chronic diseases and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in particular and he expects SEACO to add novel dimensions to his and peers' knowledge about how NCDs can be managed and prevented. As part of the advisory group he is currently looking at the research design for SEACO:

"SEACO is modelled after successful demographic and health surveillance systems in other countries, all represented in the INDEPTH-network. The study is based on a geographical defined population; it will include all residents and newcomers, all newborns; and track people who leave the area or die. This will give us a chance to observe over time what affects the lives of a large population. This population in Malaysia is particularly interesting because they are in the middle of a transition where their life styles are being modernised rapidly, and we know this has a great impact on their health but also on health services," says Maximilian de Courten.

Language, culture and history opens up for broader perspectives

The Malaysian district is also an interesting community to study from other points of view than the health perspective. Associate professor Cynthia Chou who is heading the Southeast Asian Studies programme at the Department for Cross Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen sees a range of opportunities:

 "The district of Segamat is a very exciting area because the population is very diverse, with people from Chinese, Indian and Malay background", says Cynthia Chou. Her department has for many years provided training in Southeast Asian history, culture and languages for students and others who are planning to work in the region and this will be an important contribution to the project. But she also expects SEACO will open up for broader opportunities to study other matters than health.

 "Joining SEACO gives our students and researchers opportunities to contribute with their expertise on language, history and anthropology and gain more knowledge. It provides us with a great chance to undertake studies in a cross disciplinary field with a long time perspective", says Cynthia Chou. "It could for instance be studies concerning the transformation of urban and rural spaces; modernisation and development; or studies on marriage, kinship and family structures. The list is endless," Cynthia Chou emphasises.

And it is not only students from the university's cultural or health departments who are invited to work with SEACO for their studies. The framework is open for disciplines that all can benefit from this comprehensive access to data. SEACO could for example be an opportunity for natural sciences such as agricultural studies, life science studies on food, studies on development economics or law studies.

Cross disciplinary research that matches real life

Although looking at other matters than health might sound contradictory to a project that is initially a health project, this is exactly the strength of cross disciplinary projects such as SEACO. The observatory will give interested students and researchers from various fields across the university the opportunity to team up with other researchers giving their work new and broader perspectives.  

 "By bringing together different professions we will see new approaches and solutions to health issues. And it is only a bonus that the disciplines involved e.g. political science, economics or anthropology can expand their knowledge at the same time. Real life is a wonderfully complex web of interactions, and science should match this, says Professor Maximilian de Courten.

Cross-disciplinary research and education is the cornerstones of the Copenhagen School of Global Health.


If you wish to learn more about the research design or SEACO in details please contact Professor Maximilian de Courten.

If you work at the University of Copenhagen and wish to know more about how your university department can access SEACO, please contact Director of International Affairs John E. Andersen at The International Office.


The project is run by Monash University Malaysia which is an independent part of Monarsh University Australia in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health, University of Amsterdam, the INDEPTH Network, Queens University Belfast, University of Malaya and The University of  Copenhagen.