The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

Borders don’t stop disease. Can cross-border research?

Fri, March 2, 2018
Borders don’t stop disease. Can cross-border research?
Emma Mancha-Sumners, Research Scientist, Latino Research Initiative

Written by Jessie Temple

The recent Puentes summit on advancing population health research, hosted by Dell Medical School, began with a simple reminder: borders are human inventions. While health care systems and approaches might vary widely between the United States and Mexico, health conditions like cancer, obesity, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health don’t stop at the border. In fact, many of these conditions are exacerbated by current immigration patterns and policies.

The February summit brought together population health experts and researchers from both sides of the border to share information and best practices around a range of subjects, including migrant health, chronic disease, mental health, environmental health, and community interventions for prevention. The more than 50 participants, including presenters from the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, UT Austin, and Dell Medical School and facilitators from LLILAS Benson Mexico Center and the Latino Research Initiative, were given a task: to leave the conference with specific, actionable ideas addressing the population health issues affecting both countries.

Emma Mancha-Sumners, a research scientist at the Latino Research Initiative, facilitated a session initially called “Gender, Reproductive Health and Women’s Health.” Within minutes of beginning to talk, however, the participants, including U.S. and Mexico-based specialists in public health, nursing, kinesiology, and human development, had renamed themselves. “Everyone in the group acknowledged that basing the conversation on gender was a problem,” said Mancha-Sumners. “For instance, girls are often taught about pregnancy and birth control, while boys hear about STIs. This type of compartmentalizing limits solutions, and sometimes makes problems worse.  We agreed that we needed to combine those conversations.”

The group, now called “Reproductive Health,” quickly moved on to discussing sex education, cultural norms and sexual health, relationship violence, testing, treatment, and other related issues – for instance, the influence of U.S. lifestyle patterns on growing chronic disease incidence and healthcare delivery in Mexico, and Mexican success with strategies for countering chronic disease through health-related laws, like soda bans.

For Mancha-Sumners, the summit emphasized the importance of transdisciplinary research. In her breakout group, participants discussed the need for mixed methods research. “You need both quantitative and qualitative research,” she said. “You need the numbers to help you see the patterns, but you also need someone who can help you interpret those numbers. You need the stories. When you’re dealing with health, with social inequities, with a lack of resources, you really need to talk to people and understand the reasons for those patterns to come up with effective solutions.”

Did the summit yield specific, actionable ideas? Yes, said Mancha-Sumners. Her group left with a solid project outline that will serve to respond to a Request for Proposals the group identified during the actual session (details forthcoming). As important, however, were the connections made at the summit and the new awareness of work and resources on both sides of the border. “It all goes back to the mission of the Latino Research Initiative, to inform and support researchers. Events like this help research in the U.S., help research in Mexico, help us all do what we do better.”

Bookmark and Share