Health Care

Hispanic women farmworkers are vulnerable to HIV, but safe sex education is helping

In Miami-Dade County, Latina migrant farmworkers who are considered particularly vulnerable to HIV infection participated in an intervention program that aims to educate them about safe sex. Researchers at Florida International University recently said it’s had positive results.

A three-year study, conducted by FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work’s Center for Research on U.S. Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse, found the intervention to be effective. Hundreds of Latina immigrants in semi-rural areas of Miami-Dade County, which has had one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in the country, participated.

The study measured the success of an educational intervention program used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tailored to heterosexual, sexually active Hispanic women between 18 and 44. Patria Rojas, an assistant professor at the school and an HIV/AIDS researcher, likened the program to a drug given to a patient.

“A drug may work for an individual at a certain dosage, but if you give that dosage to another individual, it may not work the same. It may harm them,” Rojas said. “So the purpose of this study was to test the dosage, whether this same intervention is going to be effective to decrease the risk of sexual behavior, to increase condom use, and to increase self efficacy.”

Rojas said that Latina migrant farmworkers are deemed to be at high risk for contracting HIV even when they are in stable, heterosexual relationships because men in that community often are not monogamous and couples do not often practice safe sex.

“Culturally, sex is an extremely private aspect of life and these women have not been taught about condom use or been given the tools to talk about their sexual health,” she said.

The CDC-developed intervention program is called “SEPA,” which stands for “Salud/Health, Educación/Education, Prevención/Prevention, Autocuidado/Self-care.” It has had success in urban areas, but was untested in rural and semi-rural communities, Rojas said.

The program relies on demonstrations, role-playing and other exercises to encourage Hispanic women to use condoms and communicate with their partners about the importance of safe sex. The recently completed FIU study found that there were “significant increases” in knowledge about HIV prevention after six months among the 240 participants of the study: all of them Latina immigrants living in Miami-Dade farmworker communities.

Before implementing the program, Rojas said she went to South Florida migrant farmworker communities and spoke to women to assess their needs, the vocabulary that would resonate with them, and to lay the foundation for what the program would look like. That included figuring out which slang terms were used for “condoms” and other words.

“The more that I use the same vocabulary, the same words, the more connections, the more rapport I’m going to build and the more they’re going to learn this stuff because I’m speaking their language,” Rojas said.

Rojas has been studying Hispanic women in the Miami area since 2004, and some of her research led to the development of the CDC-designed intervention, she said. It became apparent early on in her research, more than a decade ago, that conversations about safe sex were not taking place in Latina immigrant communities, she said.

“It’s taboo in the Latino community and a lot of other cultures to talk about it, particularly for females,” Rojas said.

Hispanic migrant communities are generally understudied, Rojas said, but doing research among those populations is important to drive down health risks of an already-vulnerable people, and make all of Miami-Dade safer in the process.

“Inevitably, the more that we neglect the health of these women who are basically an intrinsic part of the community, the more disadvantaged we are going to be in general,” Rojas said.

Ben Conarck is a reporter covering healthcare at the Miami Herald, which he joined in August 2019. He was previously an investigative reporter covering criminal justice at The Florida Times-Union. In 2018, he and reporter Topher Sanders recieved Columbia University’s Paul Tobenkin award for outstanding reporting on race and the University of Colorado’s Al Nakkula award for outstanding police reporting for their multi-part investigation “Walking While Black.” Conarck has also extensively covered the Florida prison system.