Pamela Valera

Rutgers Professor Combats Cancer Health Disparities in Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Populations

For Pamela Valera, public health is very personal.

Her youngest sister, Irene, died at age 25 from a rare disease after struggling to get necessary care. At age 23, Irene was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, which elevates pulmonary artery pressure. With this pre-existing condition, she found it difficult to secure health coverage. “By the time we were able to seriously address the disease, Irene was at a stage where the doctors gave her six months to live,” Valera says.

Her sister graduated from college and was applying to graduate schools to study public health when she died. “The Affordable Care Act passed less than two years later; her disease could have been managed better if it was available,” Valera says. “We just celebrated her birthday; she would have been 32 years old.”

Irene’s death was a defining moment for Valera, who, at the time, was a postdoctoral researcher at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University, studying HIV prevention and human sexuality. “I was fascinated by my sister, this young woman who, in spite of her condition, still did the best she could. I wanted to take on her passion for social justice, both personally and professionally,” she says. “I decided to commit my life to addressing health disparities among those unable to advocate for themselves. Access to screening, prevention and treatment should be available to everyone.”

Valera has long been interested in issues that affect vulnerable populations, especially those involving health disparities. While doing her postdoctoral research, she worked with investigators in the field of criminal justice and correctional health in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision – an experience that sparked her interest in studying cancer health disparities among those affected by incarceration.

She focused on developing health education programs, studying cancer prevention and smoking cessation among incarcerated men and giving a voice to people in the criminal justice system and after their release.

In 2009, Valera became involved with Bronx Community Solutions, which provides judges with more sentencing options for non-violent offenses, and wrote a proposal to address tobacco dependence resumption among inmates returning to society from tobacco-free facilities. Her work became more pressing in 2011 when New York State began closing prisons, spurring a surge of new releases without adequate resources to address the issues surrounding the population’s reintegration.

She also co-founded the Bronx Reentry Working Group, a coalition promoting community reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals. “If you have been incarcerated for decades – especially if you entered the system in your 20s – you return to a foreign environment,” she explains. “Technology and how you get services has changed dramatically.”

A major challenge for former inmates is using cell phones, the internet and social media for resources. “You don’t get pamphlets about services anymore, so you need to know how to link to resources,” she says. “The Affordable Care Act has really helped people returning to society get health care.”

Valera says she was drawn to Rutgers School of Public Health because of its focus on urbanism. “Dean Perry Halkitis’ motto of keeping the ‘public’ in public health speaks volumes to me,” she says. “I am excited to be at an institution that advocates for diversity, inclusion, health and social justice.”

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