The Gulf Coast is no stranger to disasters, one of the reasons Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has an excellent disaster management degree program. In 2010 just as the Deepwater Horizon rig began to spill oil, researchers in the Department of Global Environmental Health Sciences (GEHS) were preparing to launch an unrelated survey about community resilience to vulnerabilities. Recognizing this unique opportunity, the team added questions specific to the oil spill. The survey responses generated a concise list of seven factors that influence readiness, from transportation to culture, that would form the basis for future work.
A year later, GEHS was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop a research consortium in response to the oil spill. “We took a risk,” said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, GEHS professor and chair, describing their approach. “We went to the community and asked: ‘What is it that concerns you?’” and ultimately identified three key threats: seafood safety, air safety, and maternal and child health. Those threats informed the design of the Transdisciplinary DisasterResearch Consortium for Gulf Resilience on Women’s Health (GROWH).
Dr. Jeffery Wickiffe, assistant professor of GEHS, has taken on both the seafood and the air quality questions, with particular attention being paid to local cultural practices. Lichtveld, who has added director of the Center for Gulf Coast Environmental Health Research, Leadership and Strategic Initiatives to her responsibilities, and Dr. Emily Harville, associate professor of epidemiology, are both looking at birth outcomes. Lichtveld’s research particularly focuses on those pregnant women most vulnerable to disaster – WIC-eligible women, many of whom are young and single.
Lichtveld’s work borrows from techniques more often seen in developing countries, where community health workers are trained and act as research partners. The health workers use iPads to collect data, send pertinent pregnancy and health messages, and retrieve messages from the pregnant women. During hurricane season, researchers also used this mHealth technology to send out preparedness information and surveys about family evacuation plans. “It’s another way of developing disaster preparedness under the umbrella of the consortium,” she said.
Supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, GROWH is following the babies for twelve months to examine how they attach to the moms and, thanks to doctoral research by Christopher Mundorf (GEHS MPH ‘13), determining how close these women adhere to the cultural norms of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
An unusual outgrowth of their work with pregnant women is the launch of the Fussy Baby Network of the Gulf Coast. Recognized as an authorized affiliate of the national network, the Fussy Baby Network works with mothers who are struggling to deal with their “fussy” babies. Often, however, it’s the moms who are stressed, says Lichtveld. “Against all the issues around Katrina and the oil spill, non-chemical stressors appear to significantly influence family wellness.”
“One frustration of doing research,” Lichtveld shared, “is not being able to provide service.” In 2012, the Center jumped on another opportunity as part of a $105 million grant from medical settlements related to the oil spill that allowed them to do just that. Focused on building capacity, the grant has been used to train and embed community health workers in primary health care settings, and provide physicians access to a network of environmental health specialists.
The team’s post-oil spill work throughout the Gulf Coast has relied on local community organizations. Using community-based participatory research strategies, the team provides culturally sensitive solutions while also building capacity for future disasters. The result is empowering, with some community leaders presenting consortium research findings at the APHA Annual Meeting.
— Dee Boling
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