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Vol. LVIII, No. 6
March 24, 2006

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NIH Joins Sorority in Mississippi Health Outreach

In 1935, a small band of women, all members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, initiated the Mississippi Health Project. Their goal was to bring treatment, supplies and health education messages to Mississippi Delta residents who rarely saw a health professional. For 6 years, until the beginning of World War II, they mobilized health professionals who set up clinics under trees, in churches and wherever people gathered. Adults were tested for various conditions and given medical treatment, children were immunized and everyone was given useful tips for staying healthy. Then Surgeon General Dr. Thomas Parran referred to the project as "one of the greatest efforts of volunteer public health" he had ever seen.

In 2006, another generation of AKA women traveled to the Mississippi Delta to continue a tradition begun 70 years earlier. This time, they were joined by a team from NIH that included representatives from five institutes. Dr. Yvonne Maddox, deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Dr. Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research, co-chairs of the NIH Public Trust Initiative, led a team who listened, learned and talked about health in Mississippi.

During the 2-day visit that began in Jackson, some members of the NIH team traveled to Mound Bayou, a 2-hour bus ride north of Jackson. There, the team joined dozens of health professionals and volunteers from the AKA sorority in staffing a health fair at the local clinic. AKA members dedicated a plaque commemorating the contribution of Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, the AKA member who began the Mississippi outreach in Mound Bayou 70 years ago.

Others on the NIH team remained in Jackson to take part in a series of events at the Jackson Medical Mall. In the late 1990s, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and a group of Jackson residents arranged to convert a failing retail mall into a major medical facility. Today, the Jackson Medical Mall houses clinics and offices of the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) as well as the educational facilities of Jackson State University and Tougaloo College. The Jackson Heart Study, which is supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities, is also located in the mall.

Maddox thanked the residents of Jackson for their support of medical research. "You are a vital part of the research enterprise," she said. "From planning the research to disseminating the results, we can't do this without your participation."

NINR's Grady noted that a large organization such as NIH needs public trust to fulfill its mission, and events like the ones in Jackson and Mound Bayou can help build that trust. Linda White, world-wide head of the 170,000-member sorority, thanked NIH for its commitment to reducing health disparities. "Our members began working with the NIH in a campaign to reduce the risks of sudden infant death syndrome among African-American infants. We are happy to expand our relationship to make a real impact on reducing health disparities."

A highlight of activities at the Jackson Medical Mall was the National Eye Institute's walk-through exhibit. Area station WLBT-TV covered the opening of the exhibit live and conducted several interviews with NIH staff and AKA members from within the eye exhibit.

NIH also invited the community to take part in roundtable discussions. These included Jackson residents, researchers from UMMC and Jackson State, Jackson Heart Study participants and stakeholders in promoting the health and well-being of the people in Mississippi.

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