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With a $1.1 million National Institutes of Health-sponsored grant and support from Guatemala’s vice president, the Penn Epidemiology Program will bring together researchers from both the University and Guatemala to better address the developing country’s chronic health issues.

This spring, the School of Medicine received a grant from the Fogarty International Center, a division of the NIH.

The grant was awarded to train clinicians and researchers from the University of San Carlos and the University of Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala in clinical epidemiology — the study of diseases — over a five-year period.

The goal of the program is to train researchers “to learn how to use limited health care resources more wisely,” said Brian Strom, director of Penn’s Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and principal investigator of the study.

The Penn-Guatemala program is part of the University’s Global Health Partnerships, an initiative created to foster “mutual collaboration” between Penn and institutions abroad, according to Charles Branas, associate professor of epidemiology and co-investigator of the study. The Global Health Partnerships establishes relationships in countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

At the start of the program, trainees spend a year at Penn taking courses within the Master of Science in clinical epidemiology program. They then select a project to research and implement once they return to Guatemala. Potential projects study chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, depending on the individual’s research interests.

The second year of the program is conducted in Guatemala, where trainees continue their studies and research projects.

A separate program exists for those who wish to pursue collaborative, rather than independent, research, which includes courses and workshops in Guatemala.

According to Branas, trainees’ projects are intended to “wake the world up to the first-rate scientific work that is being conducted in Guatemala.”

Victor Puac Polanco, a researcher at the University of San Carlos and the first of six trainees to be selected, shared this sentiment. He hopes the program and the project he selects will inspire clinical research that “can help better the health conditions of the individual, community and population” as opposed to “pure description of the problem,” he wrote in an e-mail in Spanish.

Last semester, Polanco advised a group of medical students who compiled data regarding cardiovascular health throughout Guatemala. The team surveyed 1,517 individuals and recorded blood pressure, cholesterol level and family history, among other factors. However, Polanco noted, the data has not yet been used in clinical studies or research, thus pointing to an issue that the training program will hopefully address.

“In Guatemala, we already know the problems, but nobody dares to take the next step,” he said in Spanish. “The curriculum they teach here truly does not exist there.”

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