Pandemics and virtual connections know no borders. Even though an in-person summit on shared health challenges is currently impossible, three institutions united on Nov. 17 to discuss their ongoing work in health equity and thoughts on COVID-19’s transnational impact in Texas and Mexico.
A feature event of Texas Global’s International Education Week, “The COVID-19 Pandemic: Shared Lessons and Opportunities for Texas and Mexico” brought together Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, the LLILAS Benson Mexico Center, the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública de México and the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla for a bilingual half-day conference for faculty, staff and students.
The free, virtual event registered nearly 600 participants — over 400 of them students — and featured real-time English and Spanish translation. Juan A. Rivera Dommarco, Ph.D., general director of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, delivered opening remarks.
In the first of three sessions, Dell Med’s Darlene Bhavnani, Ph.D., MPH; UT Austin Latino Research Institute’s Deborah Parra-Medina, Ph.D.; INSP’s Sergio Bautista, M.Sc.; and BUAP’s Luis Guillermo Vazquez de Lara, D.M.Sc., compared and contrasted disparities and inequities in COVID-19. They noted that the U.S. and Mexico have much in common as both fight the deadly pandemic: from pre-existing population health conditions and ethnic disparities to mistrust in systems and leadership to economic inequality.
“Why do people adhere to social distancing policies in some countries and not in others?” asked Bautista, director of the Division of Health Economics and Health Systems Innovations at INSP. “One of the principal factors we’ve found is the capacity to adhere to these policies has to do with economic inequality. If our daily income depends on us going out in the streets, we cannot stay at home. This is an exacerbating effect of economic inequality.”
The next three panelists — Dell Med’s Jewel Mullen, M.D., MPH; INSP’s Celia Alpuche, M.D.; and BUAP’s Jose Ramon Eguibar Cuenca, Ph.D. — discussed the ethical allocation of resources, reinforcing the need to address poverty and inequity in tandem with specific health challenges. Suggestions arose on how to tackle unequal resource challenges in multiple ways, including preparing universities and institutions to adapt more nimbly, investing in girls’ education and communication infrastructure, examining other countries’ solutions for similar challenges and rethinking how to connect all people to the coming vaccines.
“Each of us and all of our countries need our leaders to explain that we are part of a global society,” said Mullen, associate dean for health equity at Dell Med. “This is a time for all of us to center ourselves and our reasons for being professionally and serving society in a way that is ethical and equitable.”
Mike Mackert, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Communication, led the final and most-attended session: a medical-student panel covering the COVID-19 “infodemic” and student perspectives on battling misinformation. Today’s students in health professions must learn to combat viruses in both the body and mind — facing patients and systems exposed to false or incomplete information.
Diana Fernanda de Luna Cerna (BUAP), Miguel Angel Garcia-Salcido (BUAP), Daniela Deustua (BUAP), Desiree Vidana-Perez (INSP) and Karen Haney (Dell Med) discussed this challenge of society and communication on clinical health education.
“One good thing I saw as a WHO tool to help manage misinformation during the pandemic was EPI-WINS, the Information Network for Epidemics,” Fernanda de Luna Cerna said. “If you go on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, there is a COVID-19 alert logo. If someone wants to find the most-searched information like, ‘How does the virus spread? What are the treatments?’ … You can be directed to the WHO site. However, what’s missing is a filter. Why not have a communications organization like Facebook, for example, or a committee of people, responsible for tagging things as ‘This is not based in scientific evidence’ and ‘This is based in scientific evidence’?”
Also in attendance were representatives from the AMPATH Consortium of academic medical institutions. This event is one of many upcoming collaborations between UT Austin and its health-focused institutional counterparts in Mexico, part of a developing long-term partnership across the border. The lead organizers — Dell Med’s Tim Mercer, M.D.; UT Austin Mexico Center’s Ricardo Ainslie, Ph.D.; BUAP’s Indiana Torres, M.D., Ph.D.; and INSP’s Tonatiuh Barrientos, M.D., Ph.D. — pulled their teams together in a matter of weeks and expressed pride in the value of this particular event.
“We have major global health challenges ahead of us,” Mercer said. “Texas and Mexico and the global health community have so much in common, so much to learn from one another and so much that we can achieve when working together. This symposium today I think showed that at least for our respective institutions — UT, BUAP and INSP — it represents the start of a highly collaborative and productive global health partnership.”