Written by by Michael Crocker
Millions of undocumented workers who contribute billions of dollars to the country each year are not getting the routine inoculations they need to stay healthy and productive.
Immunization in Mexico borders on an epidemic, said Pedro Mayorga, a gerontologist at Mexico’s public health body. So he and colleagues have launched a campaign to make the shots available to these workers, who are often preyed upon by gangs for their home-country funds.
So far, more than 130,000 have been vaccinated, Mayorga said, but there’s still work to be done.
In a study published in the journal British Medical Journal last month, he and his colleagues asked 5,500 Mexican public health workers how often they’d immunized themselves, their supervisors and their students.
They were asked about vaccinating their private-sector supervisors and students as well, but they found that only 28% of those interviewed had ever inoculated private-sector employees.
Moreover, only 19% of survey respondents had ever immunized anyone they’d worked with, even though flu season lasts almost year-round in Mexico, Mayorga said.
As a result, the researchers note, some undocumented workers are beginning to skip vaccines altogether, especially in rural areas where workers travel more frequently.
The Trump administration’s immigration policies appear to have given a boost to the effort, in part because threats to deport some workers increase the need for them to vaccinate.
“The current immigration context shows an awareness of the importance of vaccination that there wasn’t for the (previous) administration,” Mayorga said.
Mayorga’s results highlight a disturbing lack of access to vaccines for Mexican undocumented workers. Less than one-third of surveyed Mexican public health workers and leaders have access to immunization clinics in the clinics they work in, with another 13% traveling to health facilities on their own, he said.
In the United States, the same level of access is hard to find. In New York, only 2% of public health workers have the opportunity to access and take advantage of publicly funded vaccines in their clinics, according to data collected by CNN affiliate WNBC and published in a special report that aired this week.
That means not only are workers at public health clinics in poorer neighborhoods and on the border forced to either under- or overvaccinate, they also may not have access to the vaccines they need.
Widespread under-vaccination can be dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it “a unique and potentially deadly anomaly among flu vaccination,” but medical science knows very little about the physiological, psychological and other effects of undervaccination.
Poor vaccination rates appear to pose a risk to public health, but they are also tied to high rates of maternal and child mortality — often based on lack of access to safe water and other resources. Unvaccinated children are also less likely to receive vaccines against diseases like measles, hepatitis B and meningitis, making them less likely to have access to services and vaccines.
Immunizations may also decrease the incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, which are known to affect undocumented workers.
The need to control these infectious diseases should make vaccination high on the public health agenda, according to Eric M. Topol, a physician, epidemiologist and dean of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California.
But public health policies don’t focus on immigration, “which is a huge gap in understanding,” he said.
“Public health is about prevention. It’s more effective to vaccinate than not vaccinate,” he said.