Newswise — Amber Gourdine wasn’t taking any chances.
Braving the humid, 90-degree days in central Nicaragua, the recent Rutgers graduate donned long sleeves and tucked her pants into her socks to avoid mosquito bites. Then, she embarked on day-long hikes to rural homes to educate residents on water safety and how to protect themselves against the Zika virus, which is on the rise throughout most of the country.
“I sprayed Permethrin and Off on my clothes and used mosquito nets, but despite my best attempts, I still got bitten,” says Gourdine, who spent nine weeks this summer serving in the Global Health Intensive Program at AMOS Health and Hope, a nonprofit organization that works in impoverished Nicaraguan communities to improve citizens’ health through education and development projects. “That’s why education is so important – reducing mosquitos and taking precautions by eliminating standing water and proper hygiene is the best defense.”
Although the incidence of Zika has fallen in many Central American countries, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are still reporting increases, according to the Pan American Health Organization. In August, Nicaragua confirmed its first microcephaly birth linked to Zika.
Gourdine was part of a rapid response to the Zika outbreak by the Nicaraguan government, which relies on organizations like AMOS to teach remotely located residents how the virus spreads and ways to prevent mosquito breeding grounds.
Gourdine, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s of science degrees in public health and in arts and sciences, learned about AMOS during an on-campus information session in New Brunswick, where she was enrolled at Douglass Residential College. “It excited me because it would allow me to put my interest in public health education into action,” she says.
As part of AMOS’ Clean Water Team, Gourdine’s mission was to educate the rural community on safe water practices and daily hygiene to help stem water-borne diseases. The Zika education is a new component AMOS added this year to the team’s mission.
Joining three colleagues and a supervisor, she spent hours each day walking from their home base to residences sprinkled throughout the countryside to examine water filtration systems AMOS had installed, assess the residents’ knowledge about water sanitation and educate them about Zika.
Zika is the latest public health threat in the communities AMOS serves, where less than 20 percent of the families have access to safe drinking water. To date, the organization has installed more than 1,000 water filters and relies on volunteers like Gourdine to make sure the residents know how to use and maintain the systems.
“It was eye-opening how little people knew about Zika,” says Gourdine, whose Spanish studies allowed her to speak to residents without a translator. “Many knew the name and that the virus was spread by mosquitos, but few knew it could be sexually transmitted. Before I left each home, I put an informational poster on the wall.”
Gourdine also assisted with teaching residents about water sanitation and trash disposal. “Waste management is a huge issue,” she says. “Since the houses are so spread apart, there is no trash collection. Instead of burning or burying trash, people leave it to decay in the yard, where it becomes a breeding ground for mosquitos.”
The AMOS mission was Gourdine’s second visit to the country since graduation. In late May, she joined the Rutgers Global Brigade for a week of building latrines, installing septic tanks and educating residents on healthy habits.
Originally, she considered pursuing nursing, but she became intrigued with public health after taking a course sponsored by Rutgers at Academica Latinoamericana de Español in Peru in 2014 as part of her Spanish studies. While there, she researched local women’s public health issues, such as domestic violence and HIV/AIDs, and presented the report to the faculty at the school. “I love the educational component of working in public health,” she says.
Upon completing her work in Nicaragua in August, Gourdine returned to her home in Magnolia, New Jersey, where she aspires to work with Americorps as a Community Health Coordinator and eventually apply to graduate school.
“Public health is fascinating because you have to view a population the same as the patient: Just as a patient knows more about their bodies and themselves than a doctor, a community of people know more about their own issues in ways more than an outsider would,” she says. “I love the mutual exchange of ideas with community members to resolve health issues together.”