Promoting health literacy

“My father died a few months ago of a headache,” reports a middle-aged woman, looking past me. She was responding to a question on our survey, which is designed to provide us with baseline information about our new communities. “He just complained of head pain and then died?” I asked Escolastica, who was translating the survey questions into Quechua, the answers for me in Spanish. She nodded, and we moved on to the next question.

My knowledge of medical conditions is limited, but I do know that pain by itself doesn’t typically cause death – the pain is symptomatic of deeper problems. Where I grew up, in a United States suburb, I was constantly exposed to anatomy posters, pharmaceutical commercials, and other health-related media. I developed a basic understanding of bodily systems just from living in that environment. The people Sacred Valley Health serves live in an environment with very limited health-related information, and a statement like “My father died of a headache” can highlight the health literacy gap.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if pain and visible markers were the only clues you had into your health condition? If they effectively were the condition (diagnosis: pain), because you didn’t understand how your body worked and didn’t have access to someone who did?

New promotora Margarita studies an anatomical diagram of the lungs.
New promotora Margarita studies an anatomical diagram of the lungs.

The Promotora Program combats health illiteracy by expanding access to health education. Promotoras teach their neighbors about various health topics, like sanitation and nutrition, and they also inform them about the biological bases of disease. What do healthy lungs look like? What does it look like when smoke damages the lungs? Observing the promotoras as they learn this information during training sessions is like watching them make great discoveries. I can only imagine the power they feel while presenting the information to their communities. Little by little,  the promotoras are working to empower their communities by sharing their knowledge of basic anatomy and biology. This knowledge gives people a greater sense of control and agency to make health-promoting choices.

In Chuppani, Docentes Beatriz and Ana Cecilia teach new promotoras about lung damage.
In Chuppani, Docentes Beatriz and Ana Cecilia teach new promotoras about lung damage.

–Written by Courtney Weintraub

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