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NEWS | May 14, 2010

West Virginia shares ideas on rural health in Peru

By Lt. Col. Mike Cadle West Virginia National Guard

CHARLESTON, W.V., - Poor dental health, lack of adequate immunizations, and a shortage of resources for preventive care are many of the challenges involved in providing health care in rural settings, the chief of aerospace medicine here at the Charleston Air National Guard base, said today.

Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Steve Nathanson led a team of American military and civilian rural health experts on a mission to Peru recently to exchange ideas with that country's Ministry of Health on how best to combat these challenges and implement effective rural health practices.

Nathanson, who works full time for Team Health Atlantic as chief of emergency medicine at Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, W.V., said education is the key.

"I think the best thing we could help with is basic education. If we give people some basic education and then spread them throughout the rural parts of the country, that is probably where we could do the most good over the longest period of time," Nathanson said.

"Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. That old proverb might be the best way to describe how we could best help the people of Peru."

The visit was coordinated with the Peruvian Ministries of Defense and Health under the National Guard's State Partnership Program, which was created in the 1990's as a means of reinforcing military and civilian relationships with developing countries to strengthen economic, military and political ties.

West Virginia has been partnered with Peru since 1996 and was one of the first two states to implement the partnership program in the U.S. Southern Command area of operations. That area includes more than 31 countries and 10 territories in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Since the program's inception, West Virginia Guardsmen have coordinated more than 30 exchanges with various Peruvian government agencies. 

"It's not about fighting wars," said Maj. Todd Miller, West Virginia's partnership coordinator. "We want to demonstrate our desire to make the world a better place and to be a good neighbor. We can do this in places like Peru by developing long-term relationships based on mutual interests," Miller said.

A team of leading rural health experts from around the country accompanied the West Virginia Guard on the week-long visit.

Heading up the civilian group was Hilda Heady, whose impressive resume includes 10 years as president of a rural hospital in West Virginia and nearly 20 years as the associate vice-president for rural health at West Virginia University.

"I was honored to be asked by the West Virginia Guard to help them take a global view of the rural health needs in Peru," Heady said. "My first impression is that there are a lot of similarities between our countries that have populations spread over mountainous areas and desert or sparse areas where the population lives."

 Heady said Peruvians have the same challenges in terms of access to healthcare as do Americans who live in rural areas.

"Given particularly the experience we've had in the U.S. trying to increase access for pregnant women to healthcare, to immunizations, to education, it's been wonderful sharing those experiences from one country to another," Heady said.

The next step in this rural health initiative, said Miller, is to bring Peruvian health officials to the U.S. to visit West Virginia's rural health clinics. 

"Doing that would reinforce many of the discussions held in Peru and establish a long-term plan for conducting more tangible, results-oriented

initiatives in the future," he said.