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Give migrants flu vaccine to tackle US detention 'emergency', doctors say

Doctors are asking officials in the US health and immigration departments to provide flu vaccines to migrants in detention, warning of an “emergency which threatens the safety of human lives, particularly of children”, in a letter made public on Tuesday.

The warning comes after three children died in the custody of US immigration due to complications from the flu in the 2018-2019 flu season – which the doctors said is nine times the rate seen in the general child population. At 21 weeks, the 2018-2019 flu season was the longest in a decade.


The doctors asked the US government to allow flu vaccinations in all detention centers, but specifically asked to be allowed into a facility in San Ysidro, California, just across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, to provide 100 vaccines at no cost. They said that would serve as a pilot program to expand vaccinations using a network of doctors throughout US states with detention centers.

The doctors wrote the flu risk was especially high in crowded environments such as detention centers. “Those within high concentration environments such as detention centers, regardless of the duration they are expected to remain, are by definition a vulnerable population, both to become infected and to experience life-threatening complications,” the letter said.

Flu season has begun in many parts of the country and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all people older than six months be vaccinated this flu season. The agency also requires immigrants to the US to receive a flu vaccination.

Without the vaccinations, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees and people who live near the facilities are also at increased risk of the flu, the doctors warned.

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The letter was originally sent to the then acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, and the health secretary, Alex Azar, in early November.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

In August, doctors from Harvard and Johns Hopkins wrote to Congress asking for an investigation into the conditions which left three children dead from complications of the flu.

The children were Felipe Gómez Alonzo, eight, who died of a bacterial infection as a complication of the flu on Christmas Eve in 2018; Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, two, who died of multiple respiratory infections including the flu and gastrointestinal infections in May 2019; and Carlos Hernández Vásquez, 16, who died of influenza in May 2019.

Doctors warned in August: “These tragic deaths appear to represent more than half of child deaths in the last year in these immigration facilities and to reflect a rate of influenza death substantially higher than that in the general population.”


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