MGH Division of Global Health and Human Rights: Human Trafficking Initiative

Click Here to Read Medscape's Interview with Thomas Burke About Sex Trafficking

Commercial sex trafficking has devastating effects on women and girls including intense psychological trauma, infectious disease (most notably HIV/AIDS), extensive physical injury, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy and malnutrition. Sex trafficking thus not only violates human rights and contributes to harmful social and economic conditions for women, but also poses a significant public health problem. The Human Trafficking Initiative (HTI) is a multi-stage project designed to address this problem.

The Division’s Human Trafficking Initiative recently completed 8 social-science research case studies on human trafficking in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, India, and the Philippines. Their research examined local public health responses to sex trafficking of women and girls. UN agencies estimate the number of individuals trafficked for “commercial sexual exploitation” as between 1 and 2 million per year. Given the plethora of physical and mental health problems facing sex-trafficked women and girls, understanding the health sector’s role in mitigating sex trafficking in communities is timely and important. The Division's research was conducted in cities in which sex trafficking is highly prevalent and the health care infrastructure is sufficient to facilitate successful interventions.

These sex trafficking case studies addressed three research questions: (1) How can a public health lens identify root causes of sex trafficking among women and girls?; (2) How can health systems directly intervene to assist sex-trafficked women and girls; and (3) How can health systems contribute to multi-sectoral anti-sex trafficking strategies? To our knowledge, only a few studies have targeted hospitals and other health institutions as entry points to study local sex trafficking contexts and their social determinants.

Launching this research within a division of a leading academic medical center has been a major advantage. Sex trafficking is a salient hospital issue due to the well-documented adverse health effects of trafficking on its victims. As frontline providers, physicians, nurses, and other allied health workers are uniquely positioned to identify and treat trafficking victims; more awareness and research that can elucidate how sex trafficking occurs will help these providers during potential encounters with victims and/or their traffickers.

Our next step in this initiative is to disseminate our findings through academic peer-reviewed publications and by reaching out to public health professionals and other colleagues to share how health care can make a measurable difference in prevention of sex trafficking as well as identification of, and care for victims of sex trafficking. The Division has facilitated over thirty trainings of healthcare workers across the United States and internationally. Finally, as most MGH attending physicians teach at the Harvard Medical School, the study of sex trafficking from a health perspective could lead to professional leadership emerging from medical schools and medicine residency programs as a result of HTI.