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Major NIH grant to fund study of Latino health

by Beth Krane - October 24, 2005

The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities recently awarded Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, an associate professor of nutritional sciences, and his collaborators at the Hispanic Health Council and Hartford Hospital an $8.25 million, five-year grant to establish the Connecticut Center of Excellence for Eliminating Health Disparities among Latinos.

The new center, the first of its kind in the northeastern United States, will employ a mix of research, education and training, and community outreach initiatives to address the health disparities faced by minorities. These disparities, which came to national attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, pose a looming problem across the country – and in Connecticut – to the growing Latino community.


  • By the year 2050, the Latino population nationwide is projected to grow to 90 million, or 25 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Between 1990 and 2000, Connecticut’s Latino population grew by 50.3 percent, making Latinos the state’s largest minority population.
  • Latinos are severely affected by Type 2 diabetes at a rate about twice that of Caucasians.
  • Latinos experience the worst poverty rate among the six ethnic groups in Connecticut analyzed in the U.S. Census, and are substantially less likely than their Caucasian and African American peers to have health insurance.
  • The ethnic group has the lowest level of education in the state.

“Latinos comprise the fastest growing minority group in the state and the country, and are severely affected by poverty and all sorts of risk factors and diseases,” says Pérez-Escamilla, who has been studying public health and nutrition issues among the Latino – mostly Puerto Rican – community in Hartford since 1994. “They face very serious issues related to lack of access to quality health care and poor nutrition, and those issues are often exacerbated by cultural, language, and educational barriers.”

The center will build upon the 10-year-old community and research-based nutrition education program Pérez-Escamilla has directed in Hartford in collaboration with the Hispanic Health Council and Hartford Hospital. The program’s established interventions include puppet shows that teach school children about proper nutrition; health and nutrition social marketing campaigns; and peer counseling programs to promote breast feeding and diabetes prevention. Pérez-Escamilla’s research group has published extensively on the impact of these interventions.

The center will have four core components: administration, research, education and training, and community outreach. The administration component will be housed on the Storrs campus, and UConn also will take the lead in research and education and training; the Hispanic Health Council will direct the community connections component, under the supervision of Pérez-Escamilla’s co-principal investigator, Grace Damio.

Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, center, associate professor of nutritional sciences, with Grace Damio, left, of the Hispanic Health Council, and Sheryl Horowitz of Hartford Hospital. The three are co-principal investigators on a newly-funded study of health disparities among the Latino population.
Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, center, associate professor of nutritional sciences, with Grace Damio, left, of the Hispanic Health Council, and Sheryl Horowitz of Hartford Hospital. The three are co-principal investigators on a newly-funded study of health disparities among the Latino population.
Photo by Melissa Arbo

During its first five years, the center will focus on nutrition, physical activity, and related chronic diseases among Latinos, with an emphasis on Type 2 diabetes. The center will adapt an existing hospital-based diabetes peer counseling program at Hartford Hospital, called Amigos en Salud, to include home-based support. It will also conduct a randomized, longitudinal study at Hartford Hospital to evaluate the impact of the new, home-based counseling on inner-city Latinos with Type 2 diabetes. The study will be conducted under the supervision of co-principal investigator Sheryl Horowitz at Hartford Hospital.

The new Latino health disparities center will take an interdisciplinary approach to research, bringing together faculty members from Storrs, the School of Medicine, and the School of Social Work in the disciplines of medicine and the social, biological, and behavioral sciences. Pérez-Escamilla says the center will contribute toward accomplishing the mission of the University’s Center for Public Health and Health Policy, which was formed in 2004 to facilitate collaboration across UConn campuses and to encourage partnerships with regional and state programs.

The center will have both an internal advisory panel and an external advisory board.

Another goal of the center will be to recruit more minority students to study health-related fields and health disparities in particular, using fellowships and research stipends.

“Minorities are underrepresented in healthcare fields nationwide and that contributes to the lack of culturally competent health care available to minority patients,” Pérez-Escamilla says.

As part of its activities, the center of excellence also will host a mini-grant competition, an annual conference, and a seminar series on health disparities.

Pérez-Escamilla hopes to officially launch the center during the spring semester. He is currently seeking faculty members interested in serving on the center’s internal advisory board. Those wishing to volunteer or to learn more about the fellowships and stipends that will be offered for students may contact him at 860-486-5073.

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