UC Merced

UC Merced students look at how culture affects health

Marisol Chavez was used to seeing pregnant Latina teens in her classrooms when she was attending high school in Cantua Creek, a small Fresno County town.

Latina teens continue to have higher pregnancy rates compared to teen girls from other ethnicities, the soon-to-be senior at UC Merced said.

The 21-year-old was one of few from her high school who made it to college. Chavez now wants to help give other Latinas the opportunity to attend college by bringing the pregnancy rates down through research she’s conducting at UC Merced.

Chavez is among several undergraduate students at the university conducting research on various health topics that are relevant to the San Joaquin Valley.

The main goal of her research is to help health educators improve their performance when assisting a Latina teen. “For them to be more aware of Latinas’ backgrounds,” she said.

As part of her research, Chavez has created the character of a Latina patient who is sexually active, is having unprotected sex and has chlamydia. She played the character with a health educator, and the visit was recorded.

Twelve volunteers viewed the video to rate Chavez’s performance on how believable her character was. The next step will be for her to go undercover. “I need to be very believable that I’m a teen in order for me to assess the health educator, and this way it’s going to help the health educator (because) it’s going to help them understand a Latina culturally,” she said. “I’m going to go undercover and assess a health educator and see how effective their interaction is with a Latina and how well they assess my risk.”

Feedback on improvements will be shared with health educators, she said.

Chavez used community resources and literature reviews while creating her character to get a better understanding of the barriers Latinas experience. “Most of them are (culture) and family because parents don’t communicate with their teens about practicing safer sex because they don’t believe in it,” she said. “They don’t believe that you’re supposed to be having sex in the first place. They don’t believe that you’re supposed to be using contraceptive methods, or having abortions — it’s not something that’s acceptable in the Latino community.”

Chavez believes that’s the biggest contributing factor in the high pregnancy rates among Latinas. “I feel like that’s a really strong barrier,” she said. “We want their teens to be practicing safer sex, if they are practicing sex, to lower the pregnancy rates.”

Pregnancies also lower the chances of Latinas attending college. Chavez hopes the outcome of her research will result in less sexually-transmitted disease and fewer teen pregnancies. “If that goes down, I really hope that their education goes up,” she said.

Other students at UC Merced are also looking at how culture affects health. Bouapanh Lor, who will be a senior in the fall, is conducting research on Hmong cultural practices, traditions and beliefs to prevent morbidity and mortality.

Through her research, she hopes to identify practices or traditions that Hmong have used in the past that helped prevent diseases. Determining what those practices are can also help build more trust toward Western medicine among the Hmong community, she said. “It’s been very hard for them to adapt here,” she said.

Lor chose that topic so her research might have an effect in the local community.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.