Here’s one reason why some are refusing the COVID-19 vaccine

Mexican culture and history influences treatment decisions for some Utahns

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Traditional medicine has been a part of Mexican culture for centuries. Although many are accustomed to traditional healing practices, others opt for modern medicine to treat symptoms and illness.

As COVID-19 spread across the globe last year and health experts offered guidance on how to prevent the spread of the virus, some households relied on more traditional practices to fend off the illness.

“In our household we don’t do much of Western medicine,” said Dinorah Segovia, who is studying electrical engineering at Brigham Young University. “Because we are not used to getting medication or antibiotics, it does make us hesitant to get the [COVID-19] vaccine.”

Traditional medicine relies on herbs and certain foods to treat ailments and has been practiced for centuries in Mexican culture. Manuscripts about the use of herbal medicines by indigenous populations in Mexico were written as early as the 16th century and included colored illustrations of medicinal plants used to treat any number of illnesses.

According to the National Institutes of Health, however, there is no scientific evidence alternative remedies, including herbal therapies, can prevent or cure COVID-19.

“In fact, some of them may not be safe to consume,” according to the NIH. “It’s important to understand that although many herbal or dietary supplements … come from natural sources, ‘natural’ does not always mean that it’s a safer or better option for your health.”

When Adriana Camarea, 40, believed she had contracted the virus, she didn’t get tested because she was uncomfortable having the results included in her medical records. Instead, she turned to methods her parents used for treating colds and other viruses.

“I used a mixture of vinegar, salt and water to gurgle, because that’s what my mother taught me to do when I had a sore throat,” she said, noting she decided to try to recover at home and not share she was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Others, like Lorenia Loza, believe the best and most effective medicines are derived from natural sources, like plants.

“I prefer to go that route first instead of turning to chemicals I don’t know,” she said.

Distrust of the system

For many Mexicans, a history of distrust in the medical and hospital systems in Mexico and the United States has influenced the way they see treatment and prevention of COVID-19. Years of inequity in Mexico’s health system, which spends about a third of what the U.S. does on public health, led to a mistrust of public healthcare, according to the World Health Organization.

For some Mexican Americans, confidence in the U.S. healthcare system is also low because of language and culture barriers, as well as lack of insurance and financial stability.

This history influences trust in the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States, even as they are safe for emergency use per the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Segovia, who was born in Mexico and moved to Utah at the age of 4, says one of her biggest concerns with the vaccines is a lack of long-term data and research.

“It takes a lot of time to understand the effects of medicine or vaccines in general until you do more research and get more data,” she said. “I want to wait and see if we have more information about short term side effects, long-term side effects and how it can really affect your body.”

Segovia, 27, grew up using traditional medicine and is wary of accepting any medication prescribed by doctors, not just the COVID-19 vaccine.

Loza, a medical assistant at the University of Utah Hospital, receives the latest news on COVID-19 guidelines and information about the vaccines. While she schedules vaccine appointments every day, she has no intention of getting one herself.

“I can say that, as of right now, no, I don’t plan on getting the vaccine,” she said, citing worries about the long-term side effects of a relatively new vaccine treatment.

As of early May 2021, there have been 398,012 cases of COVID19 and 2,204 deaths in Utah. According to the Utah department of health, roughly 20% of all cases have been among Hispanic or Latino residents, who comprise 15% of Utah’s total population.

Trusting modern medicine

Andres Cachu, a sociology major at Salt Lake Community College, was raised in a family that practiced traditional medicine but did not shy away from over-the-counter medication and trips to the hospital.

“When the traditional remedies didn’t work, we used modern medicine,” said Cachu, who received the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. “I prefer modern medicine over traditional medicine. It’s more effective than traditional medicine.”

Lili Zamudio, a business and finance major at SLCC, said she grew up with her mother always pushing her towards the traditional side. When she had a sore throat, she was prompted to drink te de limon con ajo, which is said to help soothe the throat.

Still, Zamudio, 23, said the treatments didn’t keep her from getting the Pfizer vaccine earlier this spring.

“My mom and brother advised me to get vaccinated,” she said. “They both got the Pfizer vaccine and felt fine afterwards, so I decided to get it, too.”

Zamudio said she’s so accustomed to traditional practices, however, that she plans to use the remedies she learned as a child when she becomes a mother.

“I’ll [still] teach my kids about traditional medicine,” she said. “When friends tell me they’re sick, that’s the type of stuff I recommend.”

Anthony Najera is a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. This story is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.