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Rio Grande Valley native appointed as regional dean (11-5-99)

Leonel Vela, M.D., M.P.H., has been appointed to the position of regional dean at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Dr. Vela will administer the Lower Rio Grande Valley Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC), an education, research and health promotion center in Cameron and Hidalgo counties along the Texas-Mexico border.

Under Dr. Vela's leadership, the Health Science Center will operate the RAHC's Medical Education and Research divisions. He will assume his new duties in early 2000.

The Stanford- and Harvard-trained Dr. Vela is vice president for rural and community health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and occupies the Marie Hall Chair in Rural Health. He is associate professor of family and community medicine and medical director of the Center for TeleMedicine/TeleHealth at Texas Tech. He is a native of Pharr, just east of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley, and is a graduate of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District. His wife, Alicia Cruz Vela, is from Harlingen.

"Dr. Vela is returning to his roots," said James J. Young, Ph.D., dean of the Medical School. "Not only is he from the Valley, but he formerly served as regional medical director in Harlingen for the Texas Department of Health from 1992 to 1997. He understands health and education issues associated with the region. The citizens of the South Texas/Border Region will benefit from his talents. Our search committee is to be applauded for recommending the right person at the right time to do the right job."

Dr. Vela is highly respected in academic medicine, said John P. Howe, III, M.D., president of the Health Science Center. "His impressive background includes undergraduate degrees from Stanford, a medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University," Dr. Howe said. "His dedication to improving the health of this region and this state has been evident throughout his entire career, and his qualities of leadership, academic excellence and concern about border health issues make him an ideal person to lead this latest Health Science Center outreach initiative."

Dr. Vela received a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from Stanford in 1978 with a concurrent Bachelor of Arts in psychology. In 1983 he completed his M.D. at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Harvard conferred on him the M.P.H. degree in 1987. He was the Kellogg Fellow in Health Policy and Management at Harvard in 1986.

His many accomplishments include completion of a Texas Department of Health preventive medicine/public health residency program in 1993 and selection as a National Institutes of Mental Health/American Psychological Association Minority Fellow in 1989. Earlier this year, he was honored with the Plate of Bounty Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Migrant Head Start Branch.

Among his state and national appointments, Dr. Vela has served on the Governor's Border Working Group Health Subcommittee and on the South Texas Health Education Committee. He chaired the Lower Rio Grande Valley Diabetes Task Force and the Texas Medical Association's Task Force on Border Tuberculosis Curriculum. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services recently appointed him to chair the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health.

Dr. Vela is a board-certified Diplomat of the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He did post-doctoral training in child psychiatry and neurology at the Children's Psychiatric Unit in Austin in 1988-89 and other specialized medical training in sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, epidemiology and preventive medicine. His past publications and lectures have covered topics such as diabetes, managed care, dengue fever, tuberculosis, neural tube defects, rabies, HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer screenings and migrant health.

Dr. Vela directed the local public health response to a nationally publicized Ebola Reston outbreak in the South Texas city of Alice, and directed comprehensive surveillance and intervention response to a dengue fever outbreak in South Texas.

As regional dean, Dr. Vela will serve under the auspices of the Health Science Center's Medical School. He will be based in Harlingen and will oversee the RAHC's Medical Education Division in Harlingen and the Medical Research Division in Edinburg. The U. T. Health Science Center at Houston will operate the RAHC's Public Health Division in Brownsville.

Dr. Vela's selection culminated a nationwide search. "We are very pleased that one of the outstanding medical leaders in this state has agreed to become regional dean," Dr. Howe said.

Note to editors: Dr. Vela's photo is available by calling the Office of Public Affairs, (210) 567-2570.

Contact: Will Sansom