Punta Gorda, the southernmost town in Belize, is often described by residents as “the forgotten city,” according to Dr. Ismael Hoare, assistant professor in global health at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
Dr. Hoare and Dr. Martha Coulter, professor in community and family health, have just completed the final phase of their research examining public health concerns among indigenous groups in Belize, including the Maya, both Q’eqchi and Mopan communities, and the Garifuna and Kriol populations.
The research is part of a larger project with other COPH researchers who conducted similar work with indigenous populations in Ecuador and Panama.
Dr. Hoare and Dr. Coulter worked together to establish a community advisory board, planning key informant interviews with community stakeholders in the community.
They then conducted focus groups with the community to discuss their concerns on topics including nutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, HIV, lack of health services, entry into the health system, and other emergent findings.
Dr. Hoare spoke with men and Coulter spoke with women. “The key informant interviews basically provided the basis for the focus group,” Dr. Hoare said. “The focus group is to substantiate and add to key informant groups. We found that they are corroborating what we had found in the key informant interviews.”
The focus groups took place June 27 to July 21 in an area of Belize that Dr. Hoare said needs research data to vouch for more financial support in health care.
“I think we’re uncovering quite a few things,” Dr. Hoare said. “Because of the lack of research attention in that community, a number of issues are artificially absent. For example, the presence of HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension and chronic pulmonary disease, according to official records [for that region], are practically non-existent.”
Dr. Hoare said that he’s met with the chief executive officer of the Ministry of Health in the region and provided him with updates as research was conducted, someone who he said, was happy to be receiving this support as their offices have been short-staffed and unable to conduct research on this region.
More than 40 percent of Punta Gorda’s residents, according to Hoare, are living in poverty and the area experiences frequent limitations on human resources for health services.
“Communities are concerned for the health of their population and are willing to assist once they are aware of the intent of the research,” he said. “The issue here is for us to be able to establish a linkage with community groups and work along with them to complete research projects so they can see benefits for their population.”
According to Dr. Coulter, the public health care system located in Punta Gorda offers public health care for individuals living in town, with the assistance of a private volunteer health agency. But, for people in the villages and rural areas, health care means traveling a large distance.
“Some of these villages require walking long distances and then taking a bus to get into town,” Dr. Coulter said. “It’s quite a hardship to get the kind of care they need. Community health workers do go out to the villages, but it’s not frequently and they are not able to offer clinical health care. The volunteer health agency also has a mobile unit which is able to visit some villages, but there are still significant gaps in service. In addition, the health center in Punta Gorda has limited resources to provide specialty care.”
Dr. Coulter said the mayor and other leaders in the community are concerned about not having sufficient resources to respond to public health issues in the community, with more attention being given to larger population areas in Belize.
“They are hoping that as a result of our data collection, they can argue for additional resources,” she said.
The next step will involve coding and analyzing data from the focus groups and pulling all the information together to provide to the community advisory board, according to Dr. Coulter.
For Dr. Hoare and Dr. Coulter, this research is the first step to creating public health change in Belize’s southernmost town.
“I hope that we can positively impact the services they are provided,” Dr. Hoare said.