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UMass Amherst School of Public Health wins $2.5 million training grant

AMHERST, Mass. Training to improve the nation's public health system by strengthening the technical, scientific, managerial and leadership competence of current and future public health workers will soon be underway in Springfield, Holyoke, Pittsfield and the Berkshires, supported by a four-year, $2.5 million grant to the School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Dean Marjorie Aelion, with lead faculty investigators on the grant Dan Gerber and Stuart Chipkin, recently announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services award to the SPHHS at UMass Amherst, which creates a Public Health Training Center on the campus. Similar awards were also given to Yale, Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities.

Through the center, training will be available to 30 current community health workers in Springfield, Holyoke, Pittsfield and the Berkshires each year over the next four years. Concurrently, 30 UMass Amherst SPHHS undergraduate student interns will be placed in some of the communities to help administer new programs each year.

The UMass Amherst team in addition to Gerber and Chipkin includes Gloria DiFulvio, Elaine Puleo and Risa Silverman, head of the SPHHS Office of Public Health Practice & Outreach. They will partner with state and local agencies to develop community-specific diabetes prevention and management strategies. These will vary depending on a community's specific needs and goals. Some will focus on front-line health worker training, while others may see student interns helping to set up walking or exercise programs, fresh food markets, cooking clubs or other original, home-grown community-based activities.

As Gerber explains, "We will be providing the opportunity for each community to direct its own project specific to its needs." In coming years, broad public health strategies used to prevent and manage diabetes will be expanded upon and applied to other chronic diseases, he adds.

This major award is the SPHHS's first entry into such a national program. Dean Aelion says, "It's very exciting for us to be among this group of elite schools of public health in the country. It is a significant recognition that our school is becoming known for excellence in its teaching, research and community outreach mission."

A fundamental concept of the training center is to allow new diabetes prevention projects to be community driven. DiFulvio, the UMass Amherst SPHHS project's evaluator, says, "We don't know exactly what each will look like. We do know that public health workers, community health professionals and community leaders will be key designers of the local projects."

Chipkin and Gerber point out that the role of public health has changed in the past 50 years from a focus on communicable diseases such as polio and measles to non-communicable "lifestyle diseases" such as diabetes and lung cancer caused by smoking. Chipkin, an endocrinologist, points out that diabetes and its related problems of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have huge public health implications for heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and amputation.

One goal for the current and next generation of community public health professionals is to focus on prevention, he stresses. For diabetes, this means improving diet and exercise habits among people who are pre-diabetic. Chipkin also notes that programs will need to involve all ages because obesity and diabetes rates are rising rapidly among children as well as adults.

DiFulvio agrees. "Our collective view among public health practitioners in western Massachusetts cities, towns and rural areas is that diabetes is really affecting people of all ages in our communities. The approach we will take as a training center is: What can we do together to make a difference?"

Chipkin says that this project "is a great opportunity to bridge the world of clinic and community by increasing collaboration between the state's flagship public university and health care providers and community health organizations."

Gerber adds, "With this grant we plan to build ongoing, continuous collaborations with community members who see us as full partners in a year-round effort to support and train frontline health workers with a disease prevention framework."


Contact: Janet Lathrop
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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