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Migrant-flu link demands crash response

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 29, 2009 at 7:58 pm with No Comments »
April 29, 2009 7:58 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington has a huge back door standing wide open to the swine flu: the migrant farmworker stream. The state’s public health agencies should be launching a crash effort to reach this population.

Most of Washington’s migrant farmworkers are Mexican. Many of them – or their friends, or their families – are likely to have been in Mexico recently or had close contact with someone else who’s been there.

This population is at obvious risk of carrying and transmitting the swine flu.

Another problem: Migrant farmworkers often travel in crowded vehicles and live close together in migrant housing.

Another problem: Migrants don’t have regular doctors. Few have any kind of health insurance. Although they can seek medical treatment at community health clinics – some of which focus on farmworkers – many are simply disconnected from the American health care infrastructure.

Yet another problem: Migrants tend to lie low – to remain disconnected from mainstream institutions – to avoid deportation. Some may fear stepping forward for treatment.

This all adds up to an alarming potential for a major breakout in a large group that is growing by the day with the seasonal expansion of agricultural work, especially in Eastern Washington.

Some public health agencies are picking up on the risk. Grant County, for example, is trying to identify all the growers within its borders, so it can reach workers on a farm-by-farm basis.

Pierce County doesn’t seem to have geared up yet. It has a hotline and a list of clinics to refer people to. But people who speak only Spanish and who may be flying under the radar must be actively sought out and warned.

This can’t be solved at the county level, though. The virus passes easily from one nation to the next; it’s not going to stop at the county line.

The state Health Department must quickly launch and coordinate a broad effort to reach farmworkers where they live and work. It’s not enough to broadcast messages and put up notices. Someone should be visiting orchards, walking through migrant camps and knocking on doors.

The World Health Organization has just escalated its warning level to "pandemic imminent" level. A state with a large population of Mexican nationals ought to be screening and treating them on an emergency basis.

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