Curing the Delta blues with 'health houses' - - Jackson, MS

Curing the Delta blues with 'health houses'

By Marsha Thompson - bio | email

GREENWOOD, MS (WLBT) - As many have witnessed in some parts of the Mississippi Delta flatlands, there is no shortage of prayer, poverty or pain.  In church on Sunday they read out loud names of those ill. 

The Mississippi Delta is laced with some of the highest rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and infant mortality in this county. 

"There's a lot of people in Baptist Town that need to go to the doctor, but they can't afford to go," says Mary McCoy, who has a job, but no health insurance or car.

Then there was the local businessman who operates a grocery and coin laundry. 

"I would love to see doctor to just get a check up, a thorough check up, but you know I don't have insurance so I don't get to see one," said Sylvester Hoover.

Amid the shacks and heat, disease and illness remain high. Money is short. Little has changed in decades. 

Jackson physician Aaron Shirley, 77, has traveled to the region numerous times since the 1960s. We asked him what makes him so dismayed about the Delta.

"Not much has changed in 40 years -- despite all the money spent, all the research," he replied.

And despite millions poured into this flat hot rural landscape, health disparities between the Delta and the rest of Mississippi are widening. 

"Let's put it this way," says Shirley in his Jackson office. "In this country you have to have insurance or money to get appropriate care."

Out of the blue came an invitation from his friend Mohammad Shahbazi, M.D., chair of the Department of Behavioral and Environmental Health at Jackson State University. Dr. Shahbazi was born in Iran. He invited Dr. Shirley to travel to Iran, America's sworn enemy, to see how that rocky remote region delivers care to its people.

At one time an Iranian village was like Baptist Town, in that they had no access or very little access to primary care and preventive care.

With approval from the U.S. government, the National Institutes of Health and the Iranian government Ministry of Health, Dr. Shirley and his team got to see Iran's health homes. He paid a visit in 2009. 

"We were there to learn from them what we should be doing," he says. All political posturing was momentarily put aside. 

Dr. Shirley saw health houses in remote villages. They are the first line of defense staffed by trained villagers giving basic health services. With help, Dr. Shirley envisions training single moms in Mississippi on government assistance to staff the health houses, a way to deliver basic health care to their neighbors and get off welfare rolls. 

"My dream is for probably 12 or 15 Delta communities to have a health house," said Shirley.

A new idea from an old country, two regions 7,000 miles apart, suffering similar problems and sharing concepts.  

"Come hell or high water, we will have a health house up and running," said Shirley. 

He hopes to establish the houses using volunteers, along with donated buildings and medical supplies. He is trying to get grants, and Dr. Shirley is convinced this plan will save money in the long run. Getting care and teaching prevention to indigent people before they become chronically ill and have long expensive stays in hospitals.

Iranian doctors also visited Baptist Town. The World Heath Organization commends the health house concept. It has also won kudos for its innovative primary health care system, a system that has managed to cut health disparities between urban and rural areas of the country for the past several years. It help cut infant death rates in Iran by more than 70%.

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