[Author Suha Patel is a medical student at UNC and co-leader of the Honduran Health Alliance.]
As I was reading my epidemiology textbook, preparing myself for a year of public health research, I stumbled on the concept of a period effect, which refers to an event occurring at a specific moment in time that affects an entire population and changes the rates of certain conditions in that population independent of other factors. I couldn’t help but think back to my experience in Honduras this summer. What was the period effect of the coup in Honduras? What was the impact on our medical student coordinated women’s health program and the six villages that we serve in the mountains of southwest Honduras? How did this event affect cervical cancer screening among the 300 women who have relied on us for their annual women’s health exams for the past 5 years?
Most of them will not get pap smears this year. The nearest government health clinic is too far, or women don’t have the money for transportation to get there, etc. They are poor, subsistence farmers living without electricity in geographically isolated communities.
The Honduran Health Alliance (HHA) is a program coordinated by medical students. This is a special characteristic of the program, offering students a unique opportunity to plan and coordinate a large-scale project from start to finish. But this same characteristic made leaving Honduras a very bitter moment. We poured our blood, sweat, and tears into a year of planning leading up to this summer. The women in the six communities had been awaiting the return of “La Alianza” all year. The emotional burden of incompletion weighed heavily on us as we left for the Nicaraguan border on July 8, 2009.
Some of us backpacked through Nicaragua and Costa Rica for a few weeks to recover from the mental and emotional exhaustion. When I got back to North Carolina, I could reflect on the situation with a clear head. Damage was done, but we had achieved many things and learned many lessons. We reached out to the communities, completed health talks, and maintained strong relationships with lay health promoters and in-country contacts. Now what could we do to sustain the goals of the program in the future?
Sustainability has always been a goal that HHA strive towards as an organization. In light of this summer’s events in Honduras, working towards this goal is crucial to the survival of the organization. More importantly, we need to strengthen in-country networks to sustain the project at the community level so that efforts to improve cervical cancer screening access and reproductive health can be carried out by community members whether UNC medical students are present or not.