Doctors Find Public Health Crisis in South Texas

(CN) — Toxic stresses combined with poor infrastructure threaten hundreds of thousands of residents of U.S. communities on the Mexican border, according to new research that examines living conditions in the impoverished colonias.

Texas counties lack zoning authority, except in a few designated areas, such as near dams or military bases. So for decades unincorporated colonias have been built throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley. They often lack paved roads, electricity and sanitary services, and building standards are nonexistent. Chronic diseases such as tuberculosis are rife, and contribute to a wide range of other physical and mental disorders, according to a study presented Sunday at a conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Chicago.

Researchers conducted 63 surveys of colonia residents and visited homes to understand and document conditions the inhabitants face, fostered by lack of adequate sewage, wastewater treatment, trash collection, electricity and paved roads.

In the homes they visited, the team identified numerous troubling consequences stemming from substandard housing.

“As a pediatrician, I was saddened to witness the level of toxic stress the colonia residents and children had to endure,” said co-lead researcher Pei-Yuan Pearl Tsou, a pediatric hospitalist in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. “But I was also extremely moved by their inspiring resilience and their active participation in our study, as well as other community-organizing efforts to take on these challenges.”

More than 82 percent of households reported at least one chronic disease, which generally cannot be prevented using vaccines or cured using medicine. About 38 percent of households reported three or more chronic diseases.

Nearly all households — 97 percent — reported pest problems, and 50 percent reported mold issues. Many inhabitants do not invite guests into their homes and feel socially isolated.

Almost one-third of the residents rated their personal health as either fair or poor, which is more than three times higher than the general U.S. adult population. Thirty-five percent rated their mental health as fair or poor: nearly five times more than the noninstitutionalized adult U.S. population.

“Poor housing impedes all modes of self-care that are prescribed daily by primary care physicians throughout the world. We hope to shine a light on the inhumane realities that children and their caregivers are facing in the colonias,” said co-lead researcher Reshem Agarwal, a community pediatrician in Oakland, California.

“These children need public policies and interventions that help buffer the dangerous effects of poverty, and the first step is acknowledging that these communities are too often forgotten.”

Almost all colonia residents are Latino, and the majority are U.S. citizens, though there are many mixed-status families. Nearly half — 46 percent — live in severely overcrowded environments.

“This data offers insights for local community organizations, health care professionals, and state-level policy makers as they develop strategies to promote improved housing quality and healthier living for the colonia residents,” the team wrote.

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