Public Health makes a positive difference in Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama

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Responding to USF’s challenge to become a top global, research institution, the College of Public Health established an international presence in Panama, Central America, about a decade ago. In partnership with USF Health, the Panama program is located at the City of Knowledge, where they conduct research and academic activities. One of the recent community projects is an outreach and tailored health education intervention among the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous group.

“The Ngäbe-Buglé community faces many discrepancies in healthcare compared to the rest of the population,” said public health researcher Arlene Calvo, PhD.  “With 95% of the people classified as living in extreme poverty, 71% malnutrition, and infant mortality rates twice the national rate at 48/100,000 live births.”



Dr. Arlene Calvo (r) leads a health education training with members of the Ngäbe-Buglé community.

Dr. Arlene Calvo (r) leads a health education training with members of the Ngäbe-Buglé community.

A research assistant professor in the Department of Community and Family Health, Dr. Calvo views this unfortunate reality as an opportunity to significantly improve health outcomes in her native country.  Based in Panama, she promotes health education and trains community health workers in the Comarca (indigenous reservations) regions of Panama and works very closely with an indigenous population known as the Ngäbe-Buglé.

According to Dr. Calvo, many members of the Ngäbe-Buglé community do not receive adequate healthcare education and training because they live in very rural or inaccessible areas. Her work focuses on training community health workers in six public health topics, including hygiene, nutrition, the environment, healthy pregnancy, the role of the midwife in the community, and intimate partner violence. Additionally, she measures the effect that these health education interventions have on the community.

 Panama Ngäbe-Buglé COPH 3

Thus far, several positive outcomes have resulted from the interventions like providing a program that is culturally appropriate and takes into account the literacy rates for the community.

 Panama Ngäbe-Buglé Validación de rotafolio

“This program has increased individual and group sense of identity, accountability, and contribution towards their community,” Calvo said. “The empowerment in the population is evident.”

Future directions for the program include a focus on domestic violence. In the meantime, Dr. Calvo hopes her research leads to more positive changes in health care education for the Ngäbe-Buglé that will have a lasting impact on improving their wellness.

In addition to her work with the Ngäbe-Buglé population, Dr. Calvo teaches International Health Education and co-teaches a summer course in International Perspectives on Women’s Health.  Both courses include a field experience to Panama where graduate students gain a greater awareness and appreciation of the historical, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors influencing pertinent public health issues in the region.

To learn more about public health initiatives in Panama, contact Dr. Arlene Calvo at

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 Established in 1984 as the first school of public health in the State of Florida, the USF College of Public Health is a recognized leader in community health, online education, maternal and child health, social marketing, and global infectious disease research. Fully accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, the college offers 25 concentrations that lead to MHA, MPH, MSPH, DrPH, and PhD degrees, as well as a BSPH, several dual degrees, graduate certificates, and online programs.  To learn more about the college committed to passionately solve problems and create conditions that allow every person the universal right to health and well-being, visit

Story by Victoria Danforth and Natalie D. Preston. Photos courtesy of Dr. Arlene Calvo, USF College of Public Health

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