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Migrant workers at greater risk of contracting HIV, Imperial Valley officials say

January 01, 2011|By Silvio J. Panta | Imperial Valley Press Staff
  • Lalita Hermosillo, case manager for Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo in Brawley, talks about HIV.

BRAWLEY — As a case manager for Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo Inc. here, Lalita Hermosillo has learned to navigate through the delicate process of relating to people who have been diagnosed HIV-positive.
Most of Hermosillo’s clients, as she call them, are migrant workers who have contracted the disease in the United States, she said.
Sadly, health-care officials said, the seasonal workers then head back to their families, where the disease is spread.
A number of the workers who labor in the fields of the Imperial Valley and elsewhere in California come from Mexico.
Should an afflicted worker cut himself or herself on the job, the food slated for harvest would not be compromised because the fragile HIV virus can only survive inside the body and dies if exposed to the outside air, Hermosillo said.
“They’re still feeding off the oxygen in the blood,” Hermosillo said of the virus.
Despite an increasing HIV caseload among field workers in the U.S. — who may not even know they’re carrying the virus — outreach efforts to inform them here about the risks of sharing dirty needles, having unprotected sex and other behaviors likely to contract the illness have been severely curtailed by state cutbacks in funding, Hermosillo and others said.
Andrea Bowers, spokeswoman for the Imperial County Public Health Department, said in an e-mailed statement that “our HIV/AIDS funding has been drastically reduced over the past couple of years.”
However, Bowers said, the county Public Health Department, which is a member of the local farmworkers’ coalition and bi-national Border Health Coalition, continues to provide surveillance and case management services to those who test positive for HIV or AIDS.
Yet the outreach programs available in Imperial County can only go so far given how fiscal constraints on the state level have led to staff layoffs, said Greg Curran, a project director with the Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo in El Centro.
World AIDS Day, which is usually coordinated around the first week of December, is the main venue where county health professionals provide free HIV testing, exhibit booths and literature about HIV/AIDS, Curran said.
Another program, PROMOTORAS, offers information about the hazards associated with intravenous drug use and sexually transmitted diseases but it is geared more for teens and “is not specific to HIV,” Curran said, “but at least it’s something.”
Any outreach effort would be vital because of likely prevalence of HIV positive cases among migrant workers over the years, said Dr. Jon Persichino, an HIV specialist with Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo in Brawley and Mecca.
A 1998 study revealed that the estimated rate of Latino migrant workers becoming afflicted with the disease is 0.6 percent higher in the U.S. than the 0.3 percent in Mexico, Persichino cited. While there is no current research that shows what the HIV prevalence rates for field workers are, health-care professionals suspect it is four to eight times higher today, Persichino said.
In Imperial County, 65 percent of the 56 HIV cases reported in April 2006 consisted of Latinos and 80 percent of the cases were male, according to Public Health Department statistics. Thirty-four percent of those cases were people between 30 and 39 years of age, the study reported.
Exacerbating the problem is that sexual predators go online and track down migrant workers, realizing that many are often in dire financial straits and must provide for their families and would likely provide unprotected sex in exchange for money, Persichino said.
“Farmworkers are at much greater risk of contracting HIV in the United States than nonmigrant workers,” Persichino said about the vulnerability of the workers. “A lot of people don’t know about it because they don’t want to talk about it.”
Staff Writer Silvio J. Panta can be reached at 760 337-3442 or at

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