Hispanic Media Dispel H1N1 Myths in Texas Border Towns
New America Media, News Report / , Elena Shore / Video by Josue Rojas Posted: Mar 29, 2010
MCALLEN, Tex. – Last April, a 33-year-old South Texas schoolteacher became the first American to die of the H1N1 “swine” flu virus.
Since her death, the H1N1 death rate in this region has been among the highest in the country. Fifty-three people have died of H1N1 in South Texas out of a population of 2 million, representing one-fourth of all H1N1 deaths in the state.
It could have been much worse, said health officials at a meeting organized by New America Media at the Texas A&M Health Science Center and sponsored by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). South Texas is a major population center but residents say they have long been ignored by the rest of the country, and have had to fend for themselves.
“We are the only ones who advocate for South Texas,” said Eduardo Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Health and Human Services of Hidalgo County, one of four counties in the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of Texas. “No one advocates for South Texas. They worry about big cities.”
But Olivarez pointed out that within a two and a half hour drive of McAllen in any direction there are 14 million people.
The region’s proximity to the Mexican border complicated prevention efforts.
Border communities were confused by the seemingly contradictory messages coming from the Mexican and U.S. governments, according to Zulema Baez, editor of the Spanish-language daily El Nuevo Heraldo in Brownsville. They didn’t understand why schools were being closed in Mexico and not in Texas. Some believed this meant that the virus was active only on one side of the border – a myth that El Nuevo Heraldo and other border media sought to dispel.
“The challenge was how to balance information from both countries,” said Baez.
The apparent “inaction” by U.S. authorities at the beginning of the outbreak was actually the result of a different medical tradition, according to Texas health officials.
“On the U.S. side, we have evidence-based medicine. If from a scientific viewpoint we don’t see the benefits of wearing a mask in public, we don’t. It looks like we’re not doing anything,” said Dr. Brian Smith, regional medical director of the Texas Department of State Health Services Region 11.
Health departments are also subject to different laws in the two countries. “Mexicans have a good colonia program of prevention and intervention, which is just a grandmother or a mother in a neighborhood,” noted Olivarez. “You can’t do that in the U.S. It’s a liability. In the U.S., you have to have license for everything.”
Mexico also has a more centralized decision-making structure, added Dr. Nelda Mier, associate professor of social and behavioral health, at Texas A&M Health Science Center’s School of Rural Public Health. “They only need an order from the president to close the schools,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way here.”
The other major challenge for Hispanic media was contending with alarmist messages in mainstream media.
“You know how we talk about the Mexican media being sensationalist and amarillista?” said Brenda Lee Huerta, community relations director and radio host at Univision Radio. “The mainstream (U.S.) media was super-amarillista this time around!”
But for health officials, getting the message out to physicians was the biggest challenge.
“The hardest to reach audience was doctors,” said Smith, who noted that many doctors don’t watch TV or read the newspaper on a regular basis.
“In the state of Texas, there is no one mechanism to communicate to all the doctors,” added Olivarez. The CDC protocol changed almost daily, making communication even harder.
The media joined with local health officials to educate border communities. Within three weeks of the first death, local health departments conducted a media training for editors and producers on H1N1 and privacy issues for patients who may be undocumented. “After that training took place, media were front in line, saying, ‘What can we do to prevent this?’” said Olivarez. “They helped quell the panic by explaining the signs, symptoms, and outcomes.”
Local health departments also met with school districts, Mexican consulates, and federal agencies like the Border Patrol and FBI. In June, Texas developed Texasflu.org, where media and community members could access information for each county, including the number of ICU patients and deaths.
Hildalgo County alone has administered more than 30,000 doses of the vaccine, according to Olivarez. It has organized more than 60 vaccination clinics since November, each with an average attendance of 600 to 700 people. And the health department is still planning clinics – about 15 more in the next month alone, at churches, schools and flea markets.
The campaign may have been successful in curbing the casualty rate here, but officials are puzzled over why most of the deaths in Hidalgo County were of men, unlike other parts of the country where pregnant women and children were most vulnerable. Texas A&M professors at the meeting speculated that machismo might be part of the problem, with some men believing they did not need to be vaccinated. The messaging may also have been tailored to women as the primary decision makers in their households.
Now, South Texas is bracing for a possible third wave of the virus. The fear is the vaccine may be expired by the time the next wave hits. Different lots of the vaccine are expected to expire in March, April and May, Smith said.
“We need people to get it before it expires and we run out.”
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