Researcher Looks at HIV/AIDS Risk on Both Sides of the Border

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

While the epidemiology of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be linked to migration, it is uncertain how much of an impact migration has in making certain groups at higher risk for contracting these infections.

Oralia Loza, Ph.D., a UTEP assistant professor of public health sciences, is collaborating with Jesus Vaca Cortes, a professor at the Universidad de Chihuahua in Mexico on a project that addresses risks for HIV/AIDS and STIs among Mixtec/Zapotec men who migrate within Mexico and to the United States.Oralia Loza, Ph.D.Oralia Loza, Ph.D.

“We need to tailor HIV prevention to the different communities,” Loza said. “What works in one to help reduce HIV doesn’t necessarily work for another. Hence, we need to understand how people think and how they behave when it comes to HIV risk.”

The study looks at the perception, attitudes and behaviors toward HIV/AIDS of the male population in two groups indigenous to Oaxaca, Mexico.

A 2004 study titled “The Epidemiology of HIV among Mexicans Migrants and Recent Immigrants in California and México,” found that 33 percent of AIDS cases in Mexico were migrants.

“Native migrant groups have been analyzed scientifically already, but few of these studies investigate the aspects of sexuality, risk factors, and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS,” Vaca said.  “Our goal is to raise awareness in these populations, and generate prevention programs on STIs and HIV/AIDS that include audiovisual materials in their native languages.”

Vaca and his team interviewed Mixtec and Zapotec men in Chihuahua and Oaxaca who had migrated to other parts of Mexico and the United States or returned home. Loza worked with two outreach workers in Vista, Calif., to conduct the same interviews among the same indigenous communities (35 at each site). The purpose was to determine if there were differences in risk behaviors, perceptions and attitudes toward HIV/AIDS and other STIs by site or migration background.

Loza mentioned that the research team focused on the Mixtec and Zapotec populations because the poor economic conditions in their communities forces the men to leave their families and communities to find work, creating a displaced and vulnerable population.

As part of the study, men were asked if they thought they were at risk for HIV or AIDS, whether or not they used condoms or had multiple partners, and what their attitude is toward people who are infected.

“They are a marginalized population and they are at risk,” Loza said. “If they’re in the U.S., there are a lot of reasons they don’t access health care. They may not be documented. It’s a different culture. And HIV rates are very high among migrants in Mexico. Many of the cases in Mexico are associated with migration.”

The study is made possible by a $45,000 grant from the Programa de Investigacion en Migracion Y Salud (PIMSA), an initiative of the University of California Office of the President involving a broad consortium of universities and governmental organizations in the U.S. and Mexico that conduct research on migration and health.

In order to qualify for a PIMSA grant, the research team must include one principal investigator from selected universities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois or New York and one principal investigator from a university or research institution in Mexico accredited by CONACYT, Mexico’s National Council on Science and Technology.

Vaca said that Loza’s experience in working with vulnerable populations, her integrity and work ethic, and the support that she has received from the College of Health Sciences attracted him to collaborate with her on the research project. 

Loza’s interest in HIV/AIDS research was piqued when she was working as a statistician while pursing her Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego. She was part of an international research team that worked with sex workers and injection drug users in clinics in the red light district along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Her motivation for focusing on HIV research has come from meeting people who suffer from it, she said. “Once you see it, it changes you,” she said.

Loza is the lead investigator in several other projects that look at HIV and STI risk among Latinos/Hispanic marginalized populations, which include transgendered women in El Paso as well as injection drug users and their sex partners in Juárez.

Loza is also an investigator in the University’s Vulnerability Issues in Drug Abuse, or VIDA project, a drug abuse research training program. She will be studying methamphetamine use on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“For me, it’s a privilege to work on projects that are serving marginalized, vulnerable populations who are typically ignored,” Loza said.