Department of Public Health Sciences

General Health Status and Epidemiology Consideration in Studying Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers

Schenker, M.B.

IN: Human Sustainability in Agriculture: Health, Safety, Environment. 471-477. Lewis Publishers. Chelsea, Michigan. 1994.

The public's image of agriculture is imprinted on the collective American psyche by Grant Wood's painting, American Gothic. That picture of the family farm may represent the idealized notion of farming, but it certainly does not include the full reality of farming today, which relies heavily on migrant and seasonal farmworkers. In the past decade there has been a marked increase in attention to occupational health and safety issues in agriculture. However, the health of the migrant and seasonal farmworker population has not been adequately addressed. This neglect of the farmworker population by the medical and public health community has been documented by Rust,' who reviewed the medical literature on migrant health from 1966 to 1989 and found a total of only 203 articles, or less than nine articles per year. Interestingly, he noted that over this time frame there was a decreasing number of articles on health care delivery, and an increase in articles on cancer, pesticides, and other occupational hazards among farmworkers. There have been relatively few studies of occupational and non-occupational health hazards among migrant and seasonal farmworkers. This may in part be due to the lack of political influence of this population, and in part to the lack of attention among health researchers to occupational hazards in agriculture. An additional constraint may be the unique problems in conducting epidemiologic studies in this population. Despite these limitations, there is ample evidence of poorer health status of farmworkers. This is particularly the case for preventive health care and for chronic diseases. Epidemiologic investigations must be sensitive to the unique realities of studying the farmworker population, but well designed and important studies are possible to address the nature and causes of illnesses and injuries. Thus, the limitations and methodologic issues that have been raised here should not be viewed as insurmountable obstacles that would prohibit undertaking such research in the future. Migrant and seasonal farmworkers provide over 80% of the farm labor in some locations, and health studies including preventive efforts are long overdue.

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