Our proximity to the border of Mexico provides us with a special opportunity to experience for ourselves the truth of information coming from our leaders and the media. Vaccinations and the health of migrants has been a subject not well documented or reported to the public. Some of our political leaders and some news outlets have made false claims that label the illegal immigrants as dangerous, disease-carrying aliens.
According to information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Cato Institute, our neighbors to the south have higher vaccination rates than the United States. These facts are easily researched, but the politics of fear is easier to believe. President Trump has accused illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America with inaccurate quotes such as, “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, David Ward, states that migrants are “coming in with diseases such as smallpox.” Dr. Ben Carson, former retired surgeon and presidential candidate, added to the misinformation by claiming measles was spread to the United States by undocumented immigrants.
Smallpox was eradicated from the world 40 years ago, a fact that seems to be overlooked in the fear-based rhetoric. Vaccination programs in Mexico and Central America have been aggressively promoted by their governments. In Mexico, death of children under the age of five was reduced by 60% in five years when their vaccination programs started in the 1980s. They now have an overall 98% vaccination rate in comparison to the United States which, depending on the vaccine, is between 80% to 95%.
Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica have a consistently higher rate of vaccination. El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala have vaccination rates close to, but slightly less than, that of the United States. Mexico and Central American citizens and governments enthusiastically embrace vaccinations, as do third world countries. People who have death and disease as a regular part of their lives are realistic about the added grief, pain, and death that life brings without vaccinations.
Several migrant aid shelters in Nogales, Sonora are supported by churches and aid groups from Arizona and beyond. Two that I am familiar with, and have participated in as a nurse and aid worker, are El Comedor, providing humanitarian aid through the Kino Border Initiative, and Cruzando Fronteras, administered by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.
Kathleen O’Leary, RN, MS is the clinical director of Cruzando Fronteras. She has been volunteering there since 2018. O’Leary has extensive experience working in third world countries at refugee camps and aid centers from Lesotho South Africa, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Vietnam, a Syrian refugee camp in Greece, and nine times in Haiti since 2010. At Cruzando Fronteras she estimates that she has treated approximately 700 migrants since 2018.
Currently, most refugees in Nogales are coming from southern Mexico. O’Leary has been astounded at the detailed vaccine documentation most refugee mothers bring for their families. The vaccine booklets, always carefully protected, are comprehensive in documenting up-to-date vaccination records. She has also been impressed that most refugees, children, and adults, are fully vaccinated to the same standards that the CDC recommends. The only children not vaccinated are those born in transit or up to one year old during their migration. Of the babies not vaccinated, Mexico says they will vaccinate them.
Last fall Cruzando Fronteras provided 100 flu vaccines for all the migrants at their facility. Every adult, parent, and child were vaccinated. Not one person refused. “Documentation is good as or better than what I have seen American parents carrying around,” O’Leary stated. “Measles outbreak is usually blamed on immigrants. Not true. I have never seen anyone at Cruzando Frontera with a communicable disease.” The fact is, Mexico has a higher percentage of people vaccinated against measles than the United States.
In my own experience and working with other nurses at El Comedor, we concur that communicable diseases that can be controlled by vaccinations are rarely or never seen at El Comedor or Cruzando Fronteras. In fact, you probably have more to fear from your American contacts than from your fellow human beings coming from Mexico or Central America.