U of Manitoba researcher wins national health research prize for child abuse studies

University of Manitoba researcher Tracie Afifi has won the Gold Leaf Prize for more than 20 years of heart-wrenching work studying victims of child abuse.

Prof. Tracie Afifi's Gold Leaf Prize will help continue studies into health toll on adults abused as children

Manitoba health researcher Tracie Afifi receives her prize from Gov. Gen. Julie Payette on Thursday in Ottawa. (Rob Faubert/Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

University of Manitoba Prof. Tracie Afifi has won the prestigious Gold Leaf Prize for more than 20 years of heart-wrenching work studying victims of child abuse.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette gave Afifi the $100,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research prize in recognition of her outstanding achievements as an early career investigator researching the lingering effects of maltreatment during childhood.

"It has been a really remarkable day. It has been a huge honour," Afifi told CBC's Up to Speed in an interview Thursday afternoon following the award ceremony.

The $100,000 award will help fuel future studies related to the health toll on adults who were abused and neglected as children.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette presents the Gold Leaf Prize to Tracie Afifi, who was honoured for years of studying child abuse. (Rob Faubert/Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

Afifi began her work on that topic nearly two decades ago, while she was still a student at the University of Manitoba.

She completed both her bachelor's degree and master's degree in science at the university in Winnipeg, where she delved into researching the relationship between child physical abuse and teen parenthood.

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Since then, Afifi has closely examined the health impacts of gambling, bullying and drug abuse, and completed a PhD at the U of M. 

She then did a Canadian Institutes of Health Research post-doctoral fellowship focused on post-traumatic stress disorder at the universities of Regina and British Columbia.

Research on resilience

Much of her work focuses on how child abuse and neglect is related to physical and mental health problems, how to help victims of child maltreatment, and how to prevent child abuse in Manitoba.

"I was interested in understanding if someone gave birth as an adolescent mother … as they aged into adulthood, were they still at an increased likelihood … to abuse their children?"

To answer that, Afifi conducted a study involving about 20,000 participants, in addition to drawing on Statistics Canada data from across the country.

Now the health expert wants to build on that work. By looking at national stats and Manitoba-based data, Afifi hopes to learn more about resiliency and protective factors.

"When someone experiences child abuse and neglect, it [typically] increases the likelihood that they'll have poor physical and mental health outcomes."

But not in all cases.

"What makes someone more resilient even after experiencing these traumatic events?" is the question she now wants to answer.

"We need to continue to support mothers who give birth earlier … to continue to support them as they become adults," Afifi said.

University of Manitoba Prof. Tracie Afifi, who can be seen in a white blouse standing fourth from the left, with the other Gold Leaf Prize winners. (Rob Faubert/Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

Afifi said she believes individual, family and school supports are important factors.

The prize money will help to pay her research team and student salaries for data collection, allowing them to follow victims for a number of years to get the full picture.

In a news release, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research said Afifi's contributions have "helped inform policies," and recognized the researcher for her "tireless advocacy to help bring children's rights and violence prevention to the forefront of media attention."

Her previous work has received numerous awards in health-related research.

In 2013, Afifi received the Children's Rights Supporter Award from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. The following year she was recognized as one of Canada's leading mental health researchers.

In 2016, Afifi was named as one of CBC Manitoba's Future 40 under 40.

With files from Ismaila Alfa