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July 25, 2017

Students break education barrier to Zika awareness

Knowledge is the most potent weapon in the fight against diseases like Zika, which can cause life-threatening birth defects in the babies of pregnant women who are bitten by infected mosquitoes.

That’s why four Florida Gulf Coast University students teamed up with Planned Parenthood to find ways to educate women who have little education and limited reading skills about the dangers of Zika and what they can do to protect themselves.

The four Community Health students – Cayla Ehekircher, ’16; Mirel Marquez Jimenez, ’16; Cris Labra, ’17; and Julia Poynter, ’16 – chose this as their senior capstone project.

It all began when Ehekircher decided to pursue an internship with Planned Parenthood. Charles Daramola, assistant professor and program director of Community Health in FGCU’s Marieb College of Health & Human Services, contacted the organization. Kathleen Wiggs-Stayner, vice president of clinical business operations for Planned Parenthood, told him the organization needed research done involving Zika awareness and that she would need four students, including two who were bilingual.

Planned Parenthood knew the Immokalee and Naples communities were not as well served as they could be when it came to Zika education, and the organization wanted to determine what their clients knew, what they didn’t know and how they got information.

“The overall goal of the Zika Health Awareness Program is to educate local communities — especially women of reproductive age in medically underserved areas — about the Zika virus, mosquito transmission, sexual transmission, travel-associated risks, and prevention of Zika,” said Nan Morgan, education director for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

And so the students set out to get some answers.

“None of us realized how big it would get,” says Ehekircher of the project. “We started with a survey, but it grew from there.”

Under Daramola’s supervision, the students crafted a questionnaire in English and Spanish that aimed to determine the women’s knowledge of Zika and its prevention as well as physical, financial and social barriers affecting the use of mosquito spray and condoms.

“Our job is to prevent disease, to educate the community,” says Daramola. “Any time we can do something to improve the quality of life for the community we are happy to do that. It was also a great joy for me to see the students pull together and take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to real-life experience. This is the type of work they are going to do.”

After creating the survey, the students visited the Immokalee and Naples clinics several times over the course of a couple of months to interview clients as they waited for medical appointments.

It was critical that the surveys be conducted verbally, says Wiggs-Stayner. “We needed to be able to speak with patients and give it to them verbally in their language of choice. Many patients that are illiterate in English or Spanish sign their names with an X. A questionnaire they would be asked to fill out wouldn’t work.”

After assessing the survey results, the students determined that Immokalee farmworkers are less likely to get news from television. They were more likely to listen to Spanish-speaking radio as they traveled to work, so information broadcast on those stations would be more effective than TV commercials.

Some of the survey’s findings:

  • 70% knew about Zika
  • 63% knew it could be transmitted during sexual intercourse
  • 50% had knowledge of one or more prevention methods
  • 25% planned to use condoms with sex in next 3 months
  • 48% planned to use mosquito spray

Coupled with healthcare disparities, lack of air conditioning and, in many cases, window screens, Latinas in Immokalee are at greater risk of contracting Zika and not receiving adequate care.

Working in conjunction with Planned Parenthood, the FGCU students created posters using images and a minimum of words so that those with low reading skills would still be able to understand the basics of protection against the virus (see below).

Planned Parenthood health centers in Immokalee and Naples provide Zika prevention kits to patients who are pregnant, plan to continue a pregnancy or who are undecided, as well as to women who are planning to become pregnant. As recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC), the kits include mosquito repellent, standing water treatment tablets, condoms and educational materials in English, Spanish and Creole. In addition, public service announcements are airing on a local Spanish radio station and locally produced flyers with pictographs are posted in high-traffic areas.

“What began with a phone call about an internship magnified into a project that could save people from birth defects and microcephaly,” says Daramola. “It benefits the community.”

The Zika Health Awareness Program was made possible through a seed grant from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Southwest and Central Florida chapter is hopeful that more donors will join to support these critically important prevention efforts.

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