Dr. Carmen Vélez Vega, Leader of the PROTECT Community Engagement Core, is the 2019 recipient of the Helen Rodriguez-Trias Social Justice Award, presented by the American Public Health Association (APHA). The award, which honors pediatrician and prior APHA president Helen Rodriguez-Trias, is presented annually to individuals with a strong track record of working for social justice for underserved and disadvantaged populations. The award specifically recognizes people who have engaged in leadership, advocacy, and mentoring in the area of public health and the elimination of health disparities.
With this award, APHA acknowledges Dr. Vélez Vega’s accomplishments as a mentor and leader at the University of Puerto Rico, where she participated in the development of the Social Determinants of Health Program. The award also recognizes her work with the PROTECT and CRECE Centers, with a particular focus on her advocacy and public health education activities during the outbreak of the Zika virus in 2016 and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. In both cases, Dr. Vélez Vega spearheaded efforts to provide public health education to the affected communities, including ways to avoid Zika infection and the health risks of drinking contaminated water following the hurricane. She also coordinated creation of resource kits for participants and community members, which included mosquito nets to prevent Zika virus infections and water filters, baby formula, batteries, and other items to address immediate needs after Hurricane Maria.
The award judges also highlighted her advocacy and education work related to PROTECT Report Back of study results to participants. Dr. Vélez Vega collaborated with Dr. Phil Brown, Silent Spring Institute, and a focus group of study participants in developing a phone app that reports participants’ results alongside aggregate study data and US averages. The app also explains the potential health impacts of contaminants and tips for reducing exposures, and has been introduced to cohort participants to great success.
The award was presented at the Latino Caucus Helen Rodriguez-Trias Breakfast during APHA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA, on Tuesday, November 5th, 2019. PROTECT is excited and pleased by this recognition of Dr. Vélez Vega’s important environmental social justice work.