MPH Panama Practicum 2012: Our Work Begins!

July 4, 2012
Author: Jessica Wright

Happy 4th of July from Panama!

We have done a lot in the past few days since arriving in Panama. Monday began with a lecture given by Dr. Arlene Calvo, who gave us great background information on historical, political and social factors that affect public health in Panama. Beginning with a history of the canal construction, we learned that when the United States got the rights to the construction of the canal, they paused work so that the spread of disease could be controlled (it was recently discovered that the mosquito was the vector for malaria). The process took a year and was a huge public health achievement to stop construction in order to listen and respond to the needs on the ground.  Dr. Calvo also spoke of the ethnic, geographic, and economic diversity in Panama and that while diversity enriches the country, it has also led to major disparities in health and wealth. It has been interesting to see the disparities in wealth first hand while driving from Panama City to the community 24 de Diciembre where we are all working. In Panama City, you have this amazing skyline of high rise condos, apartments, office buildings, but just off the highway, you have people living in much poorer conditions (yet most of those residents seem to have satellite TV).

Yesterday, we visited a regional hospital in the community of 24 de Deciembre, had a tour of the hospital facilities and spoke with a couple administrators, doctors and nurses about the training they receive and the education they provide at this teaching hospital. They seem to be very excited about building local capacity and training their own to be successful health professionals and providers. Next we visited a community health clinic in 24 de Deciembre, where our student group focusing on maternal and child health is working. There they provide primary care, preventive care through vaccinations, and it is there that the vector control and epidemiology teams are based. Next we visited Altos de Cabuya school, which my group is working out of, and we were welcomed by groups of students who had signs and balloons for us. It was really heartwarming and made our group even more excited to begin our work there.

Students welcoming the MPH Nutrition group at Altos de Cabuya School

Our group is focusing on nutrition and physical activity in this school, which is grades K-6. We will be taking height and weight measurements to compute BMI and then provide the school as well as our representatives from the University of Panama with the data and calculations as to how many students are over/underweight and normal, as compared with the Panamanian standards already in place. Additionally, we will be asking a sample of them what they eat for dinner and breakfast to get an idea of their daily nutritional intake. The school also has a garden and we are planning on interviewing the teacher in charge of the garden to see how the students are engaged in maintaining the garden, growing the vegetables, and if there is an educational component regarding the nutritional value of the foods that are grown.

We are all very excited to continue working at our various sites and are very thankful to the community which has graciously opened themselves up to us, giving us the invaluable opportunity to learn and further develop our skills as public health professionals.

More about the MPH Panama Practicum
A group of 15 University of Southern California graduate students are researching public health in Panama City, Panama, for a two-week international practicum, organized by the USC Master of Public Health (MPH) program. The students have been divided into three groups to work on maternal and child health, vaccination, environmental infectious diseases, nutrition and physical activity.

One group will be surveying patients about the healthcare system at a local clinic and proposing interventions to improve vaccination, infant development and women’s health. Another group will be in the field responding to outbreaks of environmentally spread infectious diseases and working to control common vectors such as mosquitoes. The last group will be calculating body mass index measurements for elementary school students and developing methods to improve nutrition and exercise within the school.

During their trip, the students will also be attending lectures on Panama’s healthcare system and statistics as well as visiting a remote indigenous tribe. Before leaving Panama, each student will be providing a deliverable that is intended to improve health in Panama.

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