This year we are celebrating all of the innovative ways health centers create better lives for their communities. Today we are highlighting how health centers address public health crises in their regions. From the Flint water crisis to disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy, health centers across the country are quick to organize resources and services in the support of the communities they serve. Today we’re hearing from Alexandra Conde in Puerto Rico, Community Relations Official at the Primary Care Association of Puerto Rico (ASPPR). Alexandra will share with us what Puerto Rico’s health centers are doing to address the Zika epidemic on the island.
Guest contributor: Alexandra M. Conde Toro
Earlier this year, the Puerto Rico government declared Zika a public health emergency. The virus, which is spread by mosquitos, through intercourse, as well as from a pregnant woman to her fetus, results in cold-like symptoms and can result in severe birth defects for infected fetuses. Currently there is no vaccine for the Zika virus. As such, ASPPR and health centers throughout the island of Puerto Rico have been working tirelessly to disseminate information about the virus and to prevent, identify, and treat the disease among the Island’s residents.
Well before Puerto Rico declared Zika a public health emergency, ASPPR had been monitoring all information related to Zika and disseminating it to health centers as well as collaborating with the Puerto Rico Department of Health to develop a coordinated and integrated response to the emerging outbreak. ASPPR also developed a series of trainings for health center staff to address the virus – trainings that target outreach workers, gynecologists, nurses, and health educators to better understand the virus, the life cycle of the mosquito that spreads it, and family planning techniques. Shortly, ASPPR will be offering a third training directed to other clinical staff, with the Epidemiologist of the State as the main speaker. In addition to conducting trainings, ASPPR has also formed several partnerships that have resulted in donations of condoms, repellents, mosquito nets, and larvicides for health centers to distribute in their communities.
Meanwhile, health centers have been working to prevent the spread of the virus through health education and community outreach in collaboration with municipalities, government agencies, and other organizations. Health centers serving agricultural workers, public housing residents, homeless, and patients HIV/AIDS have developed special health education initiatives with those patient populations in mind, and they have also worked in collaboration with municipalities and other organizations, visiting and educating communities about Zika and focusing their efforts on prevention.
By the end of April, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) awarded $5 million to health centers in Puerto Rico to fight Zika with the intention of providing support for expanded outreach, patient education, screening, voluntary family planning services (including contraceptives), as well as treatment of the virus. Health centers have been ramping up their efforts on the ground – hiring new staff and training existing staff to help prevent, identify, and treat the virus.
Given the economic situation in Puerto Rico, the Department of Health and other government agencies have scarce resources. As such, health centers have been a crucial part of the response to Zika, serving as a liaison between the health system and communities. They are located in areas of the greatest need and have personnel trained to guide people on how to prevent the transmission of the virus. Health centers also have experience offering voluntary family planning services to women in reproductive age, and given that over 40% of Puerto Rico’s health center patients are women of reproductive age and nearly 98% of patients are under 200% of the poverty level, the need couldn’t be greater.
Health centers have served in Puerto Rican communities for more than 40 years. They are successful, integral parts of their communities and are leaders that speak out on important issues. They know better than anyone else what their communities’ needs and barriers to care are as well as how to best address them; they are experts at collaborating with municipalities, government agencies, and organizations. Finally, health centers are key allies of the Department of Health in public health efforts and initiatives. Given the growing health crisis in the Island, health centers have been prominent in providing quality health care under an integrated patient-centered model to the people who need it most, regardless of their ability to pay. Health centers are an essential part of our health care system and play a key role in increasing access to care, lowering the cost, and improving the quality of care for all who need it. For these reasons and so much more, we must support health centers and become advocates of the health center movement. Happy National Health Center Week!
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