Uptick in flu, chickenpox, lice and sexual assaults at border migrant camp, health official says

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Flu vaccine shortage preventing inoculations as disease spreads through camp

MATAMOROS, Mexico (Border Report) — The health director for a nonprofit providing care at a refugee camp that now numbers in the thousands in northern Mexico said cases the flu, lice and chickenpox are spreading, and there have been many reports of women and children being sexually assaulted.

Nurse practitioner Helen Perry runs Global Response Management in Matamoros, which has been treating migrants who live in tents at the base of an international bridge across from Brownsville, Texas, since September. She told Border Report in an interview at the camp on Sunday that the situation grows dire each day.

And as more migrants are forced to remain in Mexico as part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, Perry said they bring with them more cases of illness, tales of assault and much grieving.

Perry said that some of her patients told her they were deported after reporting sexual assault in the United States, and now find themselves living among the hundreds of pitched tents here without heating, proper shelter, or access to food or supplies.

“We’ve seen multiple cases of rape. We’ve seen multiple instances of women who were actually assaulted in the U.S. and called to report their attack and then were deported when they were discovered to be undocumented without medical treatment without evaluation, just unceremoniously sent back across,” Perry said.

We’ve seen multiple cases of rape. We’ve seen multiple instances of women who were actually assaulted in the US and called to report their attack and then were deported when they were discovered to be undocumented without medical treatment.”

Nurse practitioner Helen Perry of Global Response Management

Border Report has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and asked whether deportations of undocumented women who report sexual assault are happening. This story will be updated when a response is received.

Nurse practitioner Helen Perry, left, is seen on Dec. 22, 2019, outside her medical care enclave of portable plastic tents and medical trailer at the refugee camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Within the camp, Perry said there also have been reports of sexual assault of women, children and LGBTQ. Some patients have said local drug cartel members prey upon the asylum-seekers, forcing them to perform sex acts, or even rounding them up at night and forcing them into prostitution.

“Women and children particularly are most vulnerable in conflict situations,” said Perry, as she stood outside her sprawling medicare care area. “Women are vulnerable to assault in the camp. It’s one of the reason we have started to address the need for a more formal security presence here, especially for the single women here.”

Perry said she’s working through Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, to have a more open dialogue with the government of Mexico and Matamoros officials to improve the security conditions at the tent encampment.

In the meantime, she said she will continue to treat as many as they can for their various ailments, illnesses and trauma.

Migrant families wait in a line for food on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, at the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Perry, who on Sunday was featured in The New York Times for her work at this camp, employs the help of a Cuban-trained physician who also is seeking asylum. American doctors also rotate in and out serving volunteer weeks, flying in from all parts of the U.S. to offer medical help.

Three weeks ago, her organization was able to bring in a 26-foot-long medical trailer equipped with exam tables, ultrasound machines and blood pressure equipment. They are also using three newly-built plastic portable structures to treat patients, including pregnant women and those reporting sexual assault.

One portable will soon be stocked with prescriptions and other lab equipment, she said as she showed the inside of the unit, which has a floor covering to help keep out poisonous coral snakes that are reported in this area just yards from the Rio Grande.

They hope to soon add a fourth portable unit, which Perry said would be used to quarantine and help extremely ill patients.

There have been multiple cases of chickenpox in the camp, she said, and there were several cases of hypothermia within the past week as temperatures dipped into the 30s in the early morning hours, including two days of heavy rains.

And Perry said that influenza is spreading throughout the camp though there are not enough flu vaccines due to a shortage in Central and South America. Currently, they are only receiving batches of 20 vaccines at a cost of $50 per shot.

To deal with the shortage, inoculations are being parsed out to the neediest: very young children and the most vulnerable populations, like those suffering from other diseases.

It’s not enough”

Helen Perry of Global Response Management said of a flu vaccine shortage

“We’ve had a major uptick in the number of influenza cases we’ve been seeing lately,” Perry said. “Due to the (vaccine) shortage we are vaccinating 20 at a time trying to prioritize vulnerable babies and vulnerable adults as well to make sure they’re treated, but it’s not enough.”

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