Lending a Helping Hand in the Fight Against Zika

Posted on June 29, 2016 by J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health
J. Nadine Gracia

At the heart of the Caribbean-American community is a sentiment to never forget your roots. A new life filled with opportunity greets many who journey to the mainland United States, but they never forget those whom they love and cherish back in their homeland. This is a sentiment that I, as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, reflect on during this Caribbean American Heritage Month.

In 2010, only eight days into a new position as Chief Medical Officer to the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), I was stunned by the news that a 7.0 earthquake had struck Haiti. My first response was to call my parents to see if they had made contact with our family in Haiti. My second response was to join the HHS team that was working on the disaster response. Upon arriving in Haiti to continue to aid in the recovery and rebuilding efforts, I was moved by the responsibility that I felt, not only as a federal official, but as a daughter of that land who wanted to undo the devastation that had been experienced by the people I loved so much.

Today, it is not a natural disaster but rather the Zika virus that is a public health crisis for the health and well-being of our families and loved ones here in the U.S. mainland, the U.S. territories, and in our beloved Caribbean nations. At HHS, we have faced other global health challenges, including the Ebola and Dengue viruses, and are working hard to provide the best resources to address this latest outbreak head on. Our top focus is to reduce the risk to pregnant women and women of childbearing age, as we have learned that Zika can cause microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.

Another critical area is educating people, including those who plan to travel to countries and territories impacted by the Zika virus, on the facts about the disease and how they can protect themselves and their families. For example, we are working to make sure that travelers returning to the United States from an area with Zika know that they should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks. These steps will prevent them from passing Zika to mosquitoes that could spread the virus to other people.

We’re taking steps to combat Zika now. In April, HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced $5 million in funding to 20 health centers in Puerto Rico to further combat the Zika virus disease. Earlier this month, additional funding was awarded to health centers in American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands to fight Zika. Health centers are using this funding to expand voluntary family planning services, including contraceptive services, outreach and education, and to hire more staff.1 And to help increase public awareness across the nation, the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH) is working with key partners and stakeholders to ensure that information on this global health issue reaches minority communities across the nation.

A newly created HHS OMH Zika Resource webpage consolidates a cross section of information on the Zika virus from the federal government, state resources and nonprofit organizations, including multilingual materials. OMH is also working in conjunction with other federal and local agencies to provide networks of promotores de salud, also known as community health workers, with culturally and linguistically appropriate materials to educate Latino and other minority communities about the Zika virus.

During this Caribbean American Heritage Month, let us empower our Caribbean-American brothers and sisters with information on how to protect ourselves from the Zika virus – both here and in the Caribbean. Similar to natural disasters, public health threats do not discriminate. In order to protect ourselves, sharing of information is instrumental to increase access to resources and services. It is a small step we can take to help educate the Caribbean-American community about how to maintain optimal health in the face of this health threat. We stand committed to working towards improving and strengthening the health of our nation and global community, and continue to stand as pillars of action and change in the United States and abroad.

For more information on the HHS Office of Minority Health visit www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov.

Find resources on Zika in English and Spanish

J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, is the Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health and the Director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

1aspe.hhs.gov reference