How Medical Workers Can Recognize Human Trafficking

In 2004, Ohio physician Jeffrey Barrows, through a contact with the State Department, researched the health effects of human trafficking as it relates to the global spread of HIV and AIDS.

“The more I read, the more I was shocked,” Barrows, an obstetrician and gynecologist, recalled. “I actually had three shocks. One that it was happening at all. The second shock was that it was so prevalent. And the third shock was that there was so little that was being done.”

Many people are still not aware, he said — and his fellow doctors can play a vital role in combating it. “Of all the sectors within society, health care is one of the most likely to encounter these victims,” he said. Research indicates that a quarter to a half of trafficking victims encounter health care professionals at some point when they are enslaved, Barrows said.

Emergency-room staff and other medical professionals need to watch for the signs of trafficking, just as they have been trained on signs of domestic violence and child abuse. Warning signs include:

• The victim being accompanied by a highly controlling person — who might even be a family member.

• The body language of the patient indicating fear of the accompanying person.

• Tattoos indicating a handler’s street name — often a brand of “ownership” by the trafficker.

• Signs of abuse.

• For sex workers, multiple sexually transmitted diseases.

• For manual laborers, such injuries as back trauma or hearing loss.

The victim may also be unaccountably silent on some issues — such as why he or she waited until symptoms became severe to seek medical help.

A hospital is a good setting for an intervention. “We can have security, we can notify police right away and get some people there that can make a good, solid intervention,” he said.

Learn more at Peter Smith’s Courier-Journal article: Doctor highlights human trafficking.

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