Why Denying Migrants Flu Shots Is a Dangerous, Foolish Move

OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL/DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY/GETTY IMAGES

Refugees at higher risk of infectious disease by holding them in cramped, unhygienic camps is a public health travesty

Wired - August 2019

“The decision to not give people in these detention facilities influenza vaccine is misguided, shortsighted, and unethical, and may be a violation of their human rights,” agrees Alexandra Phelan, an infectious disease expert and a faculty research instructor at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. “It’s incredibly dangerous.”

It’s a puzzle of public health that we don’t take flu seriously. Every year, only about half of American adults get the vaccine that prevents it. And yet, every year, at least 37 million Americans catch the flu, more than 500,000 become sick enough to be hospitalized, and somewhere between 36,000 and 61,000 die. Let’s pause for a second: That’s tens of thousands of deaths, many of which could have been prevented with a simple shot. Meanwhile, international health planners tensely monitor the unpredictable evolution of the flu virus, watching for the emergence of a pandemic strain that could kill many millions.

Yet perhaps because only a small percentage of cases ends catastrophically—or conversely, because many of us have experienced recovering from flu—we chronically underestimate the toll taken by the virus. Which might be the kindest explanation for the decision by US Customs and Border Protection, uncovered last week by CNBC, not to give the flu shot to any of the adults or children the agency is holding in crammed border camps.

Equally likely explanations: racism, prejudice, and outrageous disregard, along with a misguided belief that withholding health care—like the already-documented denials of showers, blankets, hot food, and enough room to lie down—will deter more migrants from coming.

Whatever the reason, the decision to withhold flu shots denies human rights, defies international treaties and legal conventions, and is epidemiologically dangerous and dumb.

Not to mention very badly timed. One day after the border agency’s ruling became public, the US recorded the first death of the 2019-20 flu season, a 74-year-old man living near San Diego. That means the flu season is getting an unusually early and deadly start. The agency told CNBC, and later other news outlets, that it was making the flu shot decision because of “the short-term nature” of its camps, which operate under a 1997 agreement limiting child detentions to 20 days. But the administration simultaneously announced it intends to abandon that agreement and plans to detain families with children indefinitely—which would leave many more people vulnerable to the flu. ...
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