Arizona clinic partners with doctors across border to fight disease

In 2016, a child visited a health clinic a few blocks from the US-Mexico border with a fever, headache and rash.

The symptoms were common enough. But the boy’s condition worsened.

Eventually the doctors in Douglas, Arizona, diagnosed him with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), a tick borne disease. RMSF is easily treated with antibiotics when detected early. But the delay in diagnosis landed the boy in an intensive care unit in Tucson.

The staff at Chiricahua Community Health Clinics Inc. (CCHCI) wondered how he contracted the disease, which was unheard of in Douglas.

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Then they found out Agua Prieta, Sonora, just across the border, had 40 cases of RMSF. Six children had died.

“It was a real wakeup call,” said Dr. Jonathan Melk, a pediatrician and CCHCI chief executive officer in Cochise County, Arizona. “It’s unthinkable that in a town like Douglas we would have people extremely ill or even dying of an illness and a mile away the health care providers wouldn’t even have heard of it. But that was the case.”

Dr. Karina Bechtol of Chiricahua Community Health Clinics Inc. checks a student at Douglas High School who is showing COVID-19 symptoms in late February 2022. The school has a significant population that is binational from Agua Prieta, Sonora.

The boy survived, but CCHCI set out to improve coordination with Agua Prieta so other infectious diseases wouldn’t catch them off guard.

CCHCI, often just referred to as Chiricahua, started a binational infectious disease monitoring program just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold. Two staff members now coordinate with hospitals in Sonora to track and treat infectious diseases on both sides of the border. Chiricahua hopes to provide a binational disease surveillance model for other border communities.

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