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Dr. Wendy Nembhard earns Fulbright to conduct epidemiology research in Australia

Aiming to shed a stronger light on the long-term outcomes for children with congenital heart defects in Australia, Wendy Nembhard, PhD, MPH, will work at the University of Western Australia as part of a highly competitive Fulbright scholarship.

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Dr. Nembhard, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the USF College of Public Health and director of the USF doctoral program in epidemiology, will spend a year in Perth, Australia – six months as part of a sabbatical when she will conduct preliminary research and then six months doing direct research with other scientists at the Telethon Kids Institute, one of Australia’s largest medical research institutes and is internationally recognized for child health research.

“Their research group has conducted birth defects research since 1980 and this institute is probably of one the few places that this research could be completed,” Dr. Nembhard said.

Globally, 1.4 million infants are born each year with congenital heart defects (CHD), which are abnormalities in the formation of the heart and major vessels. CHDs are the most common birth defect, affecting approximately 35,000 to 40,000 infants (1 percent of live births) annually in the United States. In Australia, the occurrence of CHD is also about 1 percent of all live births.

“Although health outcomes for affected infants greatly improved during the past decades, infants with CHDs suffer serious long-term health issues requiring multiple surgeries, hospitalizations and doctor visits,” Dr. Nembhard said. “Children with CHDs have significant physical, developmental and cognitive problems during infancy and childhood and some problems persist into adulthood. Birth defects are the leading cause of death among all infants and CHDs are the leading cause of death among all infants with birth defects.”

They are a common cause of spontaneous abortions and increased risk of childhood morbidity and mortality, Dr. Nembhard said.

“Approximately 40 percent of infants with the most serious CHDs die before age one,” she said. “That’s a huge emotional, psychological, social and financial burden on families, as well as society, and means CHDs continue to be of clinical and public health importance.”

Dr. Nembhard, who started at USF Health in 2003, has been co-investigator and principal investigator of multiple studies, including several nationally funded studies, on pregnancy, child health and birth defects.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Wesleyan College, and both her master’s degree in public health and her doctoral degree in epidemiology from the University of Texas Houston Health Science Center, School of Public Health.

Dr. Nembhard has participated in multiple postgraduate training programs, including those at the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University, and the Royal Brompton Hospital and the National Heart and Lung Institute, both of which are in London, England.

Dr. Nembhard’s Fulbright, which is one of only five Fulbright senior scholarships for Australia offered, begins in early August.