On the Front Lines of the Zika Wars: A Student Reflection

Deep in the southern mountains of Honduras, where the country’s power lines have yet to unfurl their budding tendrils, there is a village in the midst of a healthcare revolution. This past May, I traveled with a group of fellow pre-health students from the University of Houston to Santa Ana’s local clinic, established by the Houston Shoulder to Shoulder Foundation, where we fought on the front lines of global health alongside community members to halt the impending spread of the Zika virus from dismantling the village.

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Upon our arrival, we were divided into teams and tasked with one of three goals: educate the village about the modes of transmission and complications of the virus, minimize potential breeding sites through trash collection, and develop a system for community-wide fumigation. “Our goal going in there was to build infrastructure and to build something sustainable,” says UH junior Ahad Azimuddin, who played a key role in training the fumigation team, “but, we also didn’t know much about how to accomplish this.”

imgp1803-editThat was where Dr. Carol Gomez entered the picture. As the clinic’s medical director and local Honduran, Dr. Gomez has been working with the Houston Shoulder to Shoulder Foundation for over twenty years to educate a new generation of physicians about the difficulties of developing healthcare infrastructure in the third world. As the week progressed, Dr. Gomez was by our side offering an inside perspective on the daily challenges of those living in the community and the best approach to building sustainable programs for them.

When I asked about developing a vaccine program, Dr. Gomez suggested we focus on waste management; an issue that impacts the health of the entire community rather than those who don’t receive shots from the government. When our group struggled to communicate with the volunteers participating in the fumigation training program, she suggested we create a manual with photos and instructions translated in Spanish. Before our feet hit the gravel in Santa Ana, Dr. Gomez was coordinating with the local schools so we could have a space to speak with families about preventing mosquito bites and the possible risks associated with Zika infection.

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In a recent interview, Azimuddin spoke about his experience while training the volunteers: “Watching Dr. Gomez speak to the fumigation team showed me what an impact it makes when someone from the community takes charge to motivate and influence people to improve health standards. We watched the members of the fumigation team become the leaders of the community.” Without the knowledge and support of locals like Dr. Gomez, the possibility of implementing self-sustaining health programs would be inconceivable.

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As our trip came to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder if our work would in fact translate into fewer Zika cases in this pocket of Honduras. During one of our last nights at the clinic, after holding a ceremony for the volunteers that had completed the fumigation training program, everyone gathered upstairs to celebrate. Sitting around the table, the pride on the faces of the men that we had spent hours working alongside proved that whether or not Zika could be stopped, there would always be people in Santa Ana that were willing to work with us to establish their right to healthcare.

—Shelby Ragsdale

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