The Voice of Sint Maarten

It’s often difficult for a medical student to take time out of their schedule and work on projects in their community. Our free time is often encumbered with the “fire hose” of information that we all need to process and master before we sit for board exams. To be fair, there isn’t any free time per se. It is apparent (in medical school more than any other time I’ve known) that every minute of the time we schedule is, by choice, purposeful or not. With that noted, something exceptional happened this month in a span of three days that I am truly proud of. My “Z-Pack” Zika virus prevention initiative team all came together and tackled three extraordinary events around our Sint Maarten community.

If you’re just joining the Zika-related action, check out the background behind my work as well as some of the major accomplishments, achievements, and noteworthy lessons along the way this past year. My team’s work bridges a gap that exists between public health and the data we laboratorians acquire through diligent research.

The whirlwind of public health outreach events the Z-Pack was able to do were highly productive to the cause:

  • We have bolstered our public health and source reduction message on local radio, television, and print.
  • We have engaged and partnered with innumerable entities within this community and were an integral part of a mainstay annual health fair.
  • We engaged with local community members, not as students, but as public health liaisons fielding in-depth questions and addressing real concerns of the local population.
  • During these episodes, we were able to procure true data which we continue to collect, analyze, and use to formulate new approaches to positive health outcomes.

The first exciting development I listed was the debut into our media campaign. Being invited to the local radio to advertise our work and promote upcoming events was both exciting and reaffirming. In a short interview, I addressed Zika and other virus threats to the island community and discussed epidemiologic data and what it means in the scope of public health. Talking about our work alongside two of my team members and the project manager of the Ministry of Health’s vector control program was a thrill. A fellow team member and I were also fortunate enough to be flagged down by a local cable access television program to promote our work on a short video spot during our presence at the Lion’s Club Annual Health Fair I’ll discuss shortly. These media outlets reminded me of moments back in the laboratory when I had to present data clearly and field questions “on the fly.” Whether it was a staff meeting, educational resource assessment, or CAP inspection response, I couldn’t have been more prepared to handle the translational bridge from data to public view.

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Image 1: “Z-Pack” on the radio!

(Listen to the 16 minute radio spot here from PJD2 102.7FM/1300 AM The Voice of Sint Maarten)

I mentioned the Health Fair the local Lion’s Club sponsors each year, with booths that address a plethora of health education outlets from diet/nutrition, to diabetes, to (of course) mosquito reduction.  Partnering with our colleagues in the Ministry of Health we set up several tables in a tented booth and made available all kinds of educational resources for the public. There was a station designated to secondary interventions for combating mosquito risk reduction such as fogging guns and larvicides for standing water areas. I designed some clear-message flyers to distribute to patrons and others passing by our booth and was able to spark some interesting conversations with local community members and business owners who wanted more information—they wanted to distribute and display the same information in their offices and homes. Gaining popularity with the local community, we decided to record those interested parties and give them the title of “official community partners.” Not only will they feel more involved in the process of empowering and advocating for health for their community, but they will be motivated from within! I will say that my absolute favorite part of this health fair was the station our Ministry partners set up which included all their laboratory equipment they use to speciate, quantify, and analyze the local mosquito threat. This, alongside with our friends in local laboratory medicine who were collecting specimens to screen for Zika serologically, made this a very friendly environment for a laboratory professional like myself. You can bet I was happy to talk to visitors about epidemiology and risk reduction over a few microscopes!

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Figure 1: Clear-message informational flyers for public patrons to our booths at the health fair.
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Image 2: Health fair snapshots, a fogger gun, and some team building with microscopes.
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Figure 2: Preliminary data processing reveals an improvement in perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors toward Zika virus and overall arbovirus risk reduction.

On a more serious note, I want to speak briefly on the amazing opportunity that our community meeting offered for my team and I to learn some real truths about public health here on the island. With the success of partnering with laboratory services, research work in the field, and participating in a growing media campaign, the Z-Pack arranged a community meeting at a local religious center. Our “community meetings” as proposed in part from our earlier work focus on presenting audience and culturally specific information about reducing arbovirus risks and addressing health within the community. A community liaison connected us to a local Islamic center, where we conducted one of these meetings. Our presentation was received well, and a vigorous discussion followed. Having a partner from the Ministry of Health with us that day provided some clout to our discussions. I drew heavily on my interpersonal skills as a laboratorian when I fielded some really challenging questions from the adult crowd. Concerns in this particular community included specific objections to the effectiveness of the Ministry’s work on reducing mosquito populations, frustration over tourist-heavy areas receiving unfair attention, and true worry over improving health outcomes in a constructive and collaborative way. Taking the time to share their personal experiences was greatly appreciated by my team. Really engaging with the community on an individual level really makes it feel as though we are creating positive change. As a part of our work, data was collected on the effectiveness of our message. Still in its early stages, the data (Figure 4) shows qualitative improvements toward answers in post-presentation surveys which reflect new facts learned, potential for social/behavioral change, and establishment of health risk as a community priority.

 

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Constantine E. Kanakis MSc, MLS (ASCP)CM graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BS in Molecular Biology and Bioethics and then Rush University with an MS in Medical Laboratory Science. He is currently a medical student at the American University of the Caribbean and actively involved with local public health.

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