Looking to Iran to cure Delta’s health blues

Baptist Town, Mississippi is the home of blues — and one of the poorest communities in America.

­In Mississippi, infant mortality rates reach third-world levels, life expectancy is far lower for blacks than whites and more than 20 percent of the population doesn’t have health insurance. Hypertension, teenage pregnancy and childhood obesity are at their highest levels in the US.

Sylvester Hoover has run the only remaining grocery store in Baptist Town for the past 30 years.

“Right here is Baptist Town and we got the lowest capital income in the whole United States,” Hoover said. “Most people around here can't afford to go to the doctor and they definitely can't afford to go to the dentist.”

As work dried up on cotton plantations and in factories, unemployment steadily rose to 90 percent. Residents say that in Mississippi, poverty toes a color line — just 16 percent of whites live in poverty, compared to half of all blacks.

Larry Smith and his family have lived in Baptist Town for generations.

“In Baptist Town, we have always been survivors. We are a community and we are a family. We’re all we got, and that's how it's always been,” Smith said.

Smith works at the local hospital and says he sees many patients who have never been to a doctor in their lives.

“In these days and times, older people go to the hospital when they get real sick, when it's almost over, because they can't afford the bill,” Smith said. 

Resident Barbara Russell said she has seen her friends and neighbors die young — including her uncle, who died from complications related to his untreated diabetes.

“It's being ignored and they're falling dead because they're not treating their diabetes or high blood pressure,” Russell said.

Clifton Williams runs the Greenwood-Leflore Clinic, which charges just $10 to patients (to cover administrative costs). Many of his clinic’s patients are the result of obesity, poor diet and lack of preventive care.

“Mississippi is the fattest state in the nation,” Williams said. “There are a lot of factors. People eat a lot of greasy food and a lot of food without understanding that's not what we should be doing. The effect is diabetes and heart disease, and those are the effects of being obese.”

But not everyone in Baptist Town can afford the $10 Greenwood Leflore charges — which is why Jackson Doctors Aaron Shirley and Mohammad Shahbazi have looked to an unlikely model to cure the Delta’s health blues — Iran’s rural health houses.

The 17,000 health houses in Iran provide healthcare to 90 percent of the rural population and have cut child mortality rates by 69 percent over the last four decades.

After visiting Iran, Mississippi pediatrician Aaron Shirley has led the movement to bring health houses to Mississippi and staff them with residents who currently receive public assistance.

“The concept I am very excited about is feeding two birds with one hand. It's recruiting from the public assistance population, residents of the community that we are targeting to be trained as community health workers, and they will be off the public assistance rolls and helping their communities,” Shirley said.

Shirley and Shahbazi — who came to the Delta from Iran decades ago — tout the savings the health houses would generate as well. Mississippi currently spends an average of $50,000 per patient, per year — while Iran spends only $1,000. Yet rural Iranians have seen greater improvements in their access to and quality of healthcare.

“It’s about social justice. If you have human beings who are suffering in Mississippi, it is the same thing as people suffering in Iran. It's about social justice and working together to address that,” Shahbazi said.

But not everyone has embraced their plan.

“We have a governor who has declared Iran the greatest threat to national security, so when he's speaking people listen, the residents of Mississippi listen,” Shirley said. 

While the US and Iranian governments haven’t had diplomatic relations for 30 years, residents in Baptist Town saw beyond politics.

“We played them black gospel music they said it just felt like they home, it feels good, it feels great, and they just clapped their hands and stomped their feet,” Hoover said of a delegation of Iranian doctors who visited Baptist Town.

The Baptist Town health house has donated equipment and plans to open in a closed car dealership, but it is still $20,000 away from opening.

Until then, the wait continues in Baptist Town. Smith hopes his nephew will have more opportunities than he has had.

“I want him to grow up and do all the things and have all the things that I ain’t have,” Smith said. “I want him to go to college, be a doctor, so he can help me, too. He is the future here in Baptist Town.”