MPH Panama Practicum 2012: Hola!

July 7, 2012
Author: Chelsea Walden

It is hard to believe that almost a week has passed since I stepped off the plane into Panama and felt a blanket of humidity. We have seen so much and learned so much about the country in just a short time. Getting a brief history of the formation of Panama from Dr. Arlene Calvo was essential to understanding some of the public health issues that exist today. She emphasized that since the canal was completed in the early 1900s, Panama has always been a place of transport. This is partly why there is so much diversity, and also why a variety of diseases have periodically been introduced. Although Panama is a small country, the large amount of diversity from different countries as well as a number of indigenous groups has made it a true challenge to solve health problems. While Panama has historically dealt mainly with infectious diseases, chronic diseases such as diabetes and various cancers are increasingly more prevalent causes of death. After hearing this lecture, we were able to explore many parts of the city. The most fascinating place to me was the Panama Canal museum where we were able to witness an enormous tanker crossing through the Miraflores Locks from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. As we saw the water level lower and the gates open, it was hard to imagine how much work was required to build this amazing structure.

We also completed our first week of field days. My group is working at the elementary school, Altos de Cabuya. The students and teachers welcomed us with such warmth and joy; they even created ‘thank you’ signs written in English and blew up balloons for us. The English teacher, Milagros, gave us a tour of all the classrooms, kindergarten through sixth grade, and the indoor and outdoor facilities. They have a garden that was initially created with the help of previous USC MPH students. The school involves the students in the gardening process and uses the produce in the school kitchen to help feed those in most need. However, the school director informed us that they are seeking to improve nutrition and physical activity for the students. In order to assess the children’s health status, we will be measuring the height and weight to determine Body Mass Index (BMI). We have learned about the lack of government funding for healthy food and prevention education. We have begun teaching physical activity to students and giving presentations on healthy lunches. One of my most memorable moments of the week was when Teacher Josefina’s first grade class performed a skit for us with props they made themselves. They told a story about the importance of preserving the environment, in which the main character was a boy with a chainsaw who desired to cut down the trees and plants. Each of the other students explained to him why he could not cut them down: the trees provided fruit and shade and healthy air, which the flower needed to grow, ultimately making Panama a more beautiful place.

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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