PhD scholarship paves the way for Australia-first healthy skin project

14/02/2022 | 3 mins

A PhD student from Telethon Kids Institute and The University of Western Australia has been awarded Western Australia’s only 2022 postgraduate scholarship by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). 

In an Australian first, dermatologist and skin health researcher Bernadette Ricciardo will use her NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship – one of just 65 awarded across Australia in the latest funding round – to better understand and describe the skin health needs of urban-living Aboriginal children and adolescents in major and regional cities.

Dr Ricciardo said skin infections and associated complications were common in remote-living Australian Aboriginal children, with untreated skin infections often resulting in hospitalisation, life-threatening bloodstream infections, and chronic heart and kidney disease. 

“But despite more than 60 per cent of WA’s approximately 40,000 Aboriginal children living in urban settings, a knowledge gap exists for the burden of skin infection in these children,” Dr Ricciardo said.

“Further, little is known about the prevalence of non-infectious skin diseases in urban-living children. This includes conditions like eczema, which is a risk factor for recurrent skin infection.”

Bernadette Ricciardo Image: Dermatologist and skin health researcher Bernadette Ricciardo.

Dr Ricciardo, who also works at Fiona Stanley Hospital, is undertaking the Koolungar Moorditj Healthy Skin project as her PhD.

The project has been co-designed with Nyoongar Elders embedded within the Telethon Kids Institute, in collaboration with the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service and the South West Aboriginal Medical Service (SWAMS) – enabling development of an evidence-based research-service program.  

“The Koolungar Moorditj Healthy Skin project will provide Australia’s first comprehensive description of the skin disease burden in urban-living Aboriginal children and adolescents in major and regional cities,” Dr Ricciardo said.

“We also hope to learn more about skin care practices, the use of traditional bush medicines for skin, and attitudes towards sun protection in order to obtain a wholistic view of healthy skin and what that means.

“It’s exciting and pleasing to know that the NHMRC value this research as much as we do.”

Director of Aboriginal Health at Telethon Kids Institute, Glenn Pearson, said the project was another powerful example of working with Nyoongar Elders and the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service – a long-term strategic partner.

“Working with Derbarl CEO Tracey Brand and her amazing team will ensure that the outcomes of this project can be sustained in the longer term by building on the strengths of Derbarl, as well as empowering families to take on a challenge that is historically seen as one confronting children in rural and remote communities,” Mr Pearson said.   

As well as accurately describing the skin health needs of urban-living Aboriginal children in WA – evidence that will help Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and other health providers provide better skin health services – The Koolungar Moorditj Healthy Skin project will help to inform the second edition of the National Healthy Skin Guideline; aid the development of culturally appropriate health promotion and health literacy resources; and inform the co-design of clinical trials to identify prevention and treatment strategies.

The highly competitive NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship scheme provides funding for three years to help train a limited number of outstanding health and medical graduates to conduct research that is internationally competitive. It is aimed at developing a capacity for original independent research in Australia. Of 193 applications from across Australia received by the NHMRC for this funding round, 65 were successful.

Dr Ricciardo’s scholarship will be administered through The University of Western Australia, with the project being undertaken at the Telethon Kids Institute.

Media references

Tamara Hunter (Senior Communications Officer of Research at Telethon Kids Institute) 6319 1644 

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