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Hispanic Heritage Month Observed
Kickoff Stresses Relaying Health Messages to Underserved Communities

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Researchers know that good dental health is a sign of good overall health. They can prove that family counseling can improve the lives of troubled youth, and there is evidence that care providers have a wealth of tools to fight mental health problems. None of this information can help, however, if those in the medical community are the only ones who know about it. Somehow, these and other health messages — messages that lead people to seek necessary medical services — must reach the populations they intend to serve, specifically Hispanics/Latinos, the fastest growing minority in the United States, in Montgomery County, Md., and also one of the most underserved.


NIH used the occasion of its Hispanic Heritage Month observance kickoff to explore three medical issues in which the nation's minorities bear a disproportionate burden of disease. "Does Oral Health Matter?" was discussed by Dr. Raul Garcia, chair of the department of health policy and health services research at Boston University's School of Dental Medicine; "Prevention and Treatment of Troubled Youth," was presented by Dr. Jose Szapocznik, director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of Miami's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; and Dr. Luis Zayas, director of the Center for Hispanic Mental Health Research at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service, talked about "Hispanic Mental Health: Research Findings and Future Directions."

Dr. Raul Garcia

According to 1999 statistics, about 32 million Hispanics/Latinos live in the United States. By 2010, the number will be 40 million, making Hispanics/Latinos the largest minority population in the nation.

"The NIH has a broad mandate to serve the health needs of the United States' population," said Raymond Mejia, a mathematician at both NIDDK and NHLBI, and president of NIH's Hispanic Employee Organization. "Hispanics are a rapidly growing, significant segment of this population. Therefore, it is imperative that NIH address the unique health needs of its Hispanic customers — wide-ranging research needs, education and training programs. It is equally important that NIH have Hispanic representation in its workforce at all levels, but particularly at senior and policy levels."

Mejia cited current labor data: Latinos accounted for 11 percent of the civilian workforce in 1999, 6.4 percent of the federal workforce in 1998, 3 percent of the HHS department's workforce in 1999 and 2.5 percent of the NIH workforce. Only 1.15 percent of HHS grant awards to institutions of higher learning went to Hispanic-serving institutions.

NIH-HEO President-elect Ana Anders, a public health analyst in NIDA's Special Populations Office, greets longtime colleague and program speaker Dr. Jose Szapocznik warmly.

"It has been well documented that Hispanics/Latinos are significantly underserved by federal government outreach and service programs, and severely underrepresented as part of its workforce," Mejia concluded.

NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, who gave welcoming remarks, said 2000 "marks an important threshold in the efforts by NIH to expand not only research opportunities for Hispanic scientists, but also to reduce and work toward eliminating disparities in health status among racial and ethnic minority groups." She gave a brief overview of the process NIH underwent over the last 9 months to develop an overall strategic research agenda to address health disparities.

Kirschstein also mentioned NIH's new corporate recruitment strategy pilot that will be launched this fall to hire more minorities at all levels. In addition, she noted an upcoming Hispanic Summit to address employment, training and outreach efforts being spearheaded by Drs. Carlos Caban of NIH's extramural research program and Ricardo Martinez of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Garcia, Szapocznik and Zayas each presented 30- to 40-minute talks on their topics, illustrating key points with slides and research data, and responding to questions afterward.

Garcia, a 20-year NIH grantee, made a compelling argument for the need for regular oral health preventive care, pointing out that gum and mouth diseases are often indicative of other more serious systemic illnesses in the body. He said more research is necessary to definitively tie periodontal disease to life-threatening ailments such as coronary heart disease, but that some evidence already is leading to that conclusion.

Szapocznik discussed the alarmingly high rate of suicide attempts by young Hispanics/Latinos, and advocated the family counseling model of therapy for youths who show signs of clinical depression or behavioral problems. Noting that Hispanic children already are the largest child minority in the nation, he said maintaining and strengthening family-child communication and bonding are important issues for preventing or treating troubled youths.

Dr. Luis Zayas

Zayas presented current research and data on mental health in the Latino population. He showed the paucity of data collected to date in this area and stressed that all Latinos and Hispanics cannot be lumped together when considering treatment methods. Each subpopulation — Mexican, Central and South American, Puerto Rican, or Cuban, for instance — is very different and cultural individualities should be addressed.

"Each group must be understood and treated separately," he concluded. "Our values, beliefs and norms are based on our culture."

While their topics were different, one common theme kept emerging with each speaker, and with each question or comment posed by audience members: The important health messages about prevention and availability of treatment are not reaching the Hispanic community. More needs to be done to get the word out more widely.

Joe Heiney-Gonzalez (l) and Diego Uriburu urged more support for Montgomery county services to Hispanics/Latinos, the fastest growing minority group in the region.

To open the seminar, the planning committee had invited a representative from a government organization in NIH's own backyard to discuss outreach mechanisms. Joe Heiney-Gonzalez, manager of Hispanic customer service in Montgomery County's department of health and human services, talked about the more than 100,000 Latinos who live in the county and how the Hispanic population in Maryland increased by 85 percent from 1990 to 1995. More than 50 percent of Maryland's Latino population live in Montgomery County, he said. Through his office, the county is working on a Latino Health Initiative to respond to the health needs of low-income Latinos.

He also introduced Diego Uriburu, a county resident, director of a community-based healthcare organization called Identity, and Hispanic health advocate, who talked about his own struggle from early childhood with a host of health problems related to a rare disease that is now under control following a kidney transplant and medication. He said he never had to think about how expensive his health care was because his family was able to see that he had the best care possible. "From the age of 9, I have been very sick for most of my life," he said, urging more participation in local government and private efforts to provide better health for county Latinos. "Why am I telling you this short story? Because my situation is very different from most Latinos' in Montgomery County. The Latino Health Initiative needs your support. Please join in the efforts to make a difference."

On hand for the kickoff program are (from l) NIDA director Dr. Alan Leshner, NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, speaker Dr. Jose Szapocznik of the University of Miami and NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady.

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