Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Doctors Volunteer To Treat Migrants In Crowded Tijuana Shelters

Tents are lined up in sports complex turned shelter in Tijuana by the border fence, Nov. 26, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
Tents are lined up in sports complex turned shelter in Tijuana by the border fence, Nov. 26, 2018.
San Diego Doctors Volunteer To Treat Migrants In Crowded Tijuana Shelters
San Diego Doctors Volunteer To Treat Migrants In Crowded Tijuana Shelters GUEST: Susan Murphy, health reporter, KPBS News

Our top story on Midday edition as rain pelts the region Tijuana officials want to open another tent shelter on the outskirts of the city. It would be a temporary home for some of the thousands of Central American migrants waiting to ask for asylum in the U.S.. Muddy conditions created by the rain could exacerbate what one San Diego doctor is calling a public health crisis in the making. Kaye PBS health reporter Susan Murphy joins me with more on the local doctors who are volunteering their time to care for migrants at Tijuana's overflowing shelter. Susan welcome. Thank you. Susan describe how doctors believe the conditions in the Tijuana shelters could lead to a public health crisis. Will these migrants are living side by side in tents and under blankets in very confined and unsanitary conditions. They share a handful of toilets. They have little access to shower. They don't help places to wash their hands let alone wash their clothes. So these doctors are very concerned about the spread of infectious diarrhea fecal spread illnesses tuberculosis hepatitis say we all know unfortunately here in San Diego we're all too familiar with that. We had an outbreak last year a fecal spread illness so you know the doctors say it's a public health crisis in the making. So what types of medical conditions are they treating. Well I talked to Dr. Julie Sierra. She's an internal medicine physician with UC San Diego health. And I have a clip of her describing what some of these illnesses they are treating mostly what we see there is upper respiratory infections gastroenterology problems like diarrhea constipation upset stomachs. We were seeing a lot of rashes these people have been traveling together and stay in close quarters so there's a lot of viral illnesses being passed around. And you know with people living in such close quarters as she mentioned you know does today's rainfall present a challenge I mean could it make bad sanitary conditions worse. Well of course yes. They were trying to put tents above the migrants. It can stop the rain from falling on them but it doesn't stop the runoff and so that's definitely an issue of you know water spreading human waste and trash and disease. It's not a good situation at all. So what are doctors doing now to prevent a public health crisis from happening. Well they're treating those who are sick as soon as they can get to these people providing medications antibiotics for those with bacterial infections. They're urging the migrants to do their best to stay clean to wash their hands. That's the best prevention in many illnesses as washing hands covering their coughs. So they are just you know trying their best to see as many people as they can. And I want to emphasize not everyone is sick of course there are some very healthy people but there are illnesses that are evolving. Sure and the potential to spread very easy given the conditions. What did Dr. Julie Sierra tell you about the patients she's been treating. She's been treating mostly women and children. The children she says you know of course are mostly healthy. Some have sore throats respiratory illnesses. One recently suffered an asthma attack. She says they when they're treated given some medications they bounce back pretty quickly. We do have another clip of her talking about some of the people she has treated. I saw mostly women and children. Actually most of the women I saw were pregnant six to eight months pregnant. They've been traveling in that state and they're very fatigued and very traumatized quite frankly by the journey and having to flee their homeland. And she says their husband at least one case of a child with mumps. Another one or two cases of chicken pox. So Susan do the doctors have enough medicine and supplies to treat these patients. She says right now they are stocked well with donated medications and supplies. They have Tylenol Ibuprofen even antibiotics and she says one of the shelters has a fully stocked pharmacy that they can easily access to give people medications that they need. And doctors here is part of a group of volunteer physicians. How did they come to work in the shelters in Tijuana so she volunteers with a network of doctors organized by a group called San Diego border dreamers. They are a group of Dokka recipients who are passionate about helping the migrants and they advocate on immigration issues. And she's also helping to treat migrants at a shelter in San Diego. So tell me about that. OK so she says she's been treating migrants at a shelter outside an undisclosed location in San Diego on the San Diego side of the border. She says right now about 70 to 100 migrants are being brought to the shelter every day. These are people who have been granted temporary asylum coming through the ports of entry and they are awaiting their court hearings. She says they typically stay at the large communal sleeping facility for one day two nights. And in addition to seeing a volunteer doctor they receive food clothes and other necessities as well as transportation arrangements to get to where they're going. Sounds like the need for what she's doing is really great. So why does she say it's important for her to do this work. She says she feels it's her duty. She says she was inspired by an experience in volunteering in poor countries with the Peace Corps. Earlier in her life she says there's a big need. She's urging other medical professionals to help because she says there's a great need on both sides of the border. I've been speaking with KPBS health reporter Susan Murphy Susan thank you. Thank you.

Some San Diego doctors are volunteering to care of migrants at Tijuana’s overflowing shelters, where as many as 6,000 people are living side-by-side in tents and under blankets surrounded by trash and soiled clothing.

Dr. Julie Sierra, an internal medicine physician with UC San Diego Health, volunteers as part of a network of doctors organized by San Diego Border Dreamers. She said the group is also working closely with a large group of Mexican physicians to treat Central American migrants in Tijuana’s shelters.

She said confining thousands of people together in unsanitary conditions is a public health crisis in the making. The migrants share a handful of toilets and have little access to showers.

RELATED: San Diego Advocates Seek Clothing, Blankets For Caravan Migrants

"You know, things we worry about are things like infectious diarrhea, anything being passed on from not being able to wash your hands," Sierra said.

The doctors are treating illnesses such as upper respiratory infections, rashes and gastroenterology problems, including diarrhea, constipation and upset stomachs.

"I saw mostly women and children, actually most of the women I saw were pregnant — 6 to 8 months pregnant. They’ve been traveling in that state and they’re very fatigued and very traumatized quite frankly by the journey and having to flee their homeland," she said.

Sierra said the group of doctors is well-stocked with donated medications and supplies.

"We have medicines for colds, coughs. We have Tylenol, ibuprofen, we even have antibiotics. They have actually a really well-stocked pharmacy at one of the shelters so if somebody needs something that we don’t have we can easily get it from a pharmacy."

One of the next steps is vaccinations, Sierra said.

"We did see a young man with the mumps. And then I know at one of the shelters they saw someone with chickenpox. It’s hard to know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t. So that’s another thing we’re working on is to find out who’s up to date on their vaccinations and if they’re not we can try and get everybody vaccinated," she said.

RELATED: False Rumors In Tijuana Motivate Some Migrants To Turn Back

Sierra also treats migrants at a shelter at an undisclosed location on the San Diego side of the border. She said 70 to 100 migrants are being brought to the shelter every day. These are people who have been granted temporary asylum while awaiting their court hearing. And they typically stay at the large, communal sleeping facility for one to two nights.

"They get food, clothing, a place to sleep, they get help with transportation — finding the address of where they’re going, bus tickets — anything that they need," she said.

Sierra is inspired to help the migrants because of her previous experience in volunteering in poor countries with the Peace Corps. She’s urging other medical professionals to do the same.

"We definitely need more help. Especially physicians, nurses, medical students, residents — anybody who speaks Spanish. We definitely need help on both sides of the border," she said.

Sierra plans to return to the Tijuana migrant shelters on Saturday.

San Diego Doctors Volunteer To Treat Migrants In Crowded Tijuana Shelters
San Diego Doctors Volunteer To Treat Migrants In Crowded Tijuana Shelters
Some San Diego doctors are volunteering their time to care of migrants at Tijuana’s overflowing shelters, where as many as 6,000 people are living side-by-side in tents and under blankets surrounded by trash and soiled clothing.