Sunday, July 18, 2010

HOPE IN THE DELTA

For several years after my godfather, Markham Peacock, died, I made annual trips to the Delta country of Mississippi. These trips were nostalgic pilgrimages to Shaw, Mississippi, which is a rather depressing part of the Delta. The landscape in winter is particularly desolate, with miles and miles of flatland that look totally unlike the prosperous farmland when “cotton was king.” As we rode through Shaw, I saw that buildings in the downtown section of Shaw, including the old hardware store which belonged to Markham’s father, had been boarded up, and many downtown areas of surrounding small towns were also filled with abandoned buildings that had been nailed shut. Two years ago, when I asked a friend to accompany me one more time on this Delta country pilgrimage to Markham’s birthplace, she refused, saying that the desolation was too much for her.

Recently, I received the AARP Bulletin and turned to a page that bore the title “Iranian Cure for the Delta’s Blues.” It piqued my interest for two reasons: 1) for two years, I lived in southern Iran and have written extensively about this country; and 2) I have seen the desolation in Delta country, mostly fueled by the introduction of mechanization of farming. It’s a place where health and health care declined during the last century, and it’s difficult for us to accept that Iran could send help for the Delta’s health woes, but it has. According to an article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr. in the AARP Bulletin, Mohammad Shahbazi, M.D., chair of the Department of Behavioral and Environmental Health at Jackson State University, in Mississippi, who was born in southern Iran, is pioneering a new public health care program in the Delta. Southern Iran was my home abroad for two years, and I know that the infant mortality rate in that area was astronomical. The landscape and woes of the peasants in Iran during the 70’s parallel the landscape and woes of Delta country today.

However, the National Institute of Health and Iran’s ministry of health recently organized a tour to Iran for Dr. Aaron Shirley, a 77-year old pediatrician, and James Miller, a health care consultant from Oxford Mississippi. The tour included visits with doctors and public health officials and to “health houses.” In rural Iran, “behvarzes,“ or villagers, receive training to provide health services in villages of up to 1500 people and oversee sanitation, water testing, and environmental programs. Women behvarzes provide child and maternal health, family planning, vaccinations, and compile medical histories. According to Bourne, Iran now has more than 17,000 health houses and 30,000 behvarzes. Between health houses and regional centers, approximately 90 percent of Iran’s rural people receive health care.

A physician from Shiraz, Iran has visited a clinic set up in Belzoni, Mississippi that is patterned after one of Iran’s health care facilities, and Dr. Shirley hopes to set up a primary care clinic in Baptist Town, Mississippi in a renovated shack. Miller, Shahbazi, and Shirley have begun to recruit volunteers, along with donated buildings and medical supplies. The idea of behvarzes and health houses has taken root, and Shirley has applied for a $20 million grant from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana to establish the system introduced by Iran.

In the face of waning relations between Iran and the U.S., this exchange of information about Iran’s health care system with workers from Delta country may well be one of the small ways in which we begin to re-develop a supporting relationship with Iran and vice-versa.
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