A University of California, San Diego study found that “drug tourism” could be perpetrating a new HIV outbreak in Tijuana .

Researchers from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine made the announcement during a Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infection on Friday. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) rates among those who use drugs in Tijuana have risen approximately 11 percent per year. 

The study found that the HIV incidence rate for people using drugs in San Diego who cross the border to purchase drugs was found to be lower, at 2.77 per 100 P-Y. That rate is still higher than the zero percent HIV incidence rate among drug users who do not cross the border. 

“These rising rates occurred during a period when the U.S.-Mexico border was closed to nonessential travel,” said Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences, referring to the period between March 2020 and November 2021.

“They are fueled by undiminished drug tourism — people in the United States traveling to Mexico, often for extended periods, to buy and use cheaper, more accessible drugs,” Strathdee said. “Obviously, viruses don’t require passports to spread and walls don’t keep out infectious disease. We need to bolster HIV prevention efforts on both sides of the border.”

The researchers said the findings underscore the urgency of restoring and expanding efforts such as mobile needle exchange programs and greater access to tailored health services providing antiviral therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis, medications that significantly reduce the chances of HIV infection for persons at high risk.

The HIV incidence rates in Tijuana had been stable or declining, according to researchers. This is partly due to a multimillion-dollar effort by the Global Fund, which ended in 2013, for HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria to support safe need and syringe exchange programs in the country and other public health measures. 

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, more resources were diverted away from HIV prevention and treatment efforts. 

“It’s important to understand that public health issues like this are binational in nature. Viruses don’t stay in one place, and we need to work closely with partners on both sides of the border to find adequate resources.” said Gudelia Rangel, co-director of this study and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte and US-Mexico Border Health Commission. 

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