UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 2 |
Feb. 3, 2005
Researchers take on Ecuador’s Top Health Risks
By Hilary Thomson
Simmering white sugar beaches, lush jungles and crystalline
Andean air -- Ecuador is rich with pristine natural environments.
But as one of South America’s poorest countries, its
people struggle with serious environmental health issues such
as poor sanitation and water supply, pesticide contamination
and mining pollution. They also regularly battle effects of
natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding.
That’s a scenario Jerry Spiegel and a team of UBC researchers
hope to change.
Director of UBC’s Centre for International Health,
a part of the College of Health Disciplines, Spiegel is the
principal investigator of a $5-million, six-year project to
help Ecuador reduce environmental health risks, preventable
illness and deaths.
Working with team members from three Ecuadorian universities,
institutes in Cuba and Mexico, 10 UBC research centres and
institutes, and partner agencies and non-governmental organizations,
Spiegel will collaborate with local community groups to build
Ecuador’s capacity to manage environmental health risks.
“This project gives us an opportunity to walk the talk
-- to achieve impact in communities and to build a sustainable
program,” says Spiegel, who is also director, Global
Health at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. “It’s
exciting because it integrates research and education -- we’ll
only be successful if we transfer our knowledge to the community.”
Ecuador was chosen as a target site because of connections
made in a similar project Spiegel has been conducting in Cuba.
A 2001 Cuban workshop included health educators from Ecuador
who were keen to start their own programs.
Ecuador’s multiple environmental health challenges
and the potential for exchange of information between Latin
American countries made it a fascinating target for education
and research, says Spiegel, who last month organized UBC’s
first forum on global citizenship and health.
Ecuador has a population of about 13 million and a weak health
system infrastructure. Adequate sanitation and availability
of clean water are paramount needs. Water problems are made
worse by pesticide contamination from banana plantations and
cut flower farms. In rainy season, flooding and mudslides
aggravate the situation. In addition, inadequate drainage
systems and poor sanitation provide breeding areas for mosquitoes
that carry malaria and dengue fever.
Ecuador’s gold, copper, lead, magnesium and other mines
contribute to soil and water pollution, and direct handling
of heavy metals such as mercury also creates environmental
Project organizers plan to create a curriculum and core group
of local educators who specialize in environmental health.
In addition to core topics such as water and sanitation, the
curriculum will include courses on disaster preparedness,
managing mosquito-borne and other infectious diseases, indigenous
health, and building health communication technologies.
The approach is multi-disciplinary and holistic and will
produce expertise at four levels:
The team will develop a certificate program to be delivered
in person or by distance education to about 150 students,
all of whom will conduct community-based environmental health
projects such as land clearing or building water tanks, as
part of course requirements. This group will include community
planners and health practitioners as well as university students.
In addition, a one-day outreach program, or toolkit, will
be developed and delivered by the certificate students to
about 600 individuals in communities throughout the country.
A master’s program in environmental health will produce
at least 60 master’s students at partner institutions
of Universidad de Guayaquil, Universidad Tecnica de Machala
and Universidad Estatal de Bolivar.
To build a leadership group, the project includes opportunities
for Ecuadorian faculty members to study in Mexico, Cuba or
Canada. This part of the program will produce four to six
PhDs with formal commitments to teach in the three partner
universities. The partnership with Mexican and Cuban institutions
is part of a strategy to build regional capacity in Latin
and South America that will be more sustainable than traditional
links these countries have with North America.
“This multi-tiered approach provides a scaffolding
for achieving impact,” says Spiegel. “With our
partners, we can distribute environmental health education
throughout the country and know it will continue after the
project is finished.”
In addition to these plans, there will be opportunities for
UBC students to participate in local projects.
Science student Nadine Straka will be traveling to Ecuador
this summer. A member of the Global Outreach Student Association
(GOSA), a part of UBC’s College of Health Disciplines,
Straka will be working with several indigenous communities.
“I want to be an active participant in global health,”
says Straka. “The opportunity to travel to a different
country to try to help and to understand different ways of
life was a chance I could not dismiss.”
Straka and other students will present health education regarding
nutrition, sexual health, alcoholism and other topics. They
will also consult with community members about installing
a water purification system.
Oscar Lin, a fifth-year biochemistry student and GOSA president,
spent 10 weeks in Ecuador last summer, based in an area surrounded
by aboriginal communities.
“These are the warmest people that I have ever met,”
says Lin, who helped create a medicinal garden and give health
presentations in elementary schools. “Going to Ecuador
changed my perspective a lot. It showed me what could be done
with more resources and reinforced my interest in practicing
medicine in developing countries.”
This month, the UBC project team is conducting a workshop
in Havana to evaluate the usefulness of material used in a
similar environmental health education project in Cuba and
to focus on curriculum that addresses Ecuador’s environmental
health priorities. Attendees include 10 UBC faculty and students,
eight participants from Ecuador and 20 from Cuba.
Funding for this project was provided by the Canadian International
Development Agency’s University Partnerships in Co-operation
and Development Tier 1 program.
For more information on the Ecuador project, visit www.cih.ubc.ca.
UBC Centres and Institutes Involved in the Ecuador Project
- Institute of Health Promotion Research
- Disaster Preparedness Resources Centre
- Continuing Medical Education
- School of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene
- Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals
- Institute for Aboriginal Health
- UBC Centre for Disease Control Department of Medicine
- Liu Institute for Global Issues
- Institute for Resource, Environment and Sustainability
- Centre for Human Settlements
- Health Disparities Research Unit
- Centre for International Health