ECU to assist international team on $1.5M funded rural, community research project

Two East Carolina University professors in the Thomas Harriot College of Art and Sciences are part of an international team who will spend the next five years researching and implementing community-based interventions to reduce heat-related illnesses (HRI) in rural Mexico.

The project “How can a heat-health action plan help to manage the effects of heat in rural Mexico?” is led by Horacio Riojas Rodríguez and his environmental health team at the National Institute of Public Health in Tapachula, Mexico. Beth Bee, ECU associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment and director of environmental studies, and Erin Frost, associate professor of English, are part of the team. The Wellcome Trust has awarded $1.5 million for the project, and ECU will receive approximately $316,000.

Head shots of Beth Bee and Erin Frost.

East Carolina University faculty members Beth Bee, left, and Erin Frost are part of an international team studying heat-related illnesses and community-based interventions in Mexico as part of a $1.5 million grant. (Contributed photos)

“As a geographer and a scholar who works outside of the United States, it’s exciting to be part of a project that extends ECU’s mission of public service and regional transformation beyond eastern North Carolina to neighbors in Mexico who have ties to North Carolina, and vice versa,” Bee said.

Vulnerable populations

In the researchers’ preliminary proposal, they said that rural communities in low- and middle-income countries are particularly vulnerable to HRIs, and that heat action plans have shown consistently positive results.

“Heat action plans are community-based interventions that can be an effective means to reduce heat-related illnesses,” Bee said. “Multi-pronged action plans that include an early warning system, capacity building for health care workers and a communication strategy have been shown to provide consistently positive results that aid the public in understanding and evaluating their own risks and taking the appropriate steps for prevention and preparedness.”

Working in six rural communities in southern Mexico — along the Mexico/Guatemala border — Rodríguez and the team will coordinate with each community to co-develop, test and evaluate a locally relevant, culturally appropriate, user-driven heat-health action plan consisting of an early warning system; a capacity building plan and a network for health care workers to identify and respond to HRIs; and prevention education and communication tools, including an inter-community information sharing network to address local heat-health risk management challenges.

Bee will lead the U.S. collaborators, which include Frost; Christopher Uejio, professor of geography at Florida State University; Kammi Schmeer, associate professor of sociology at the Ohio State University; and Chelsea Austin, an independent program evaluator and principal owner of WildBlue Evaluation, LLC.

“I’m thrilled to be working with Erin to better understand existing knowledge about and responses to extreme heat hazards in rural communities in southern Mexico,”  Bee said.