Physicians Arrested While Protesting Lack of Influenza Vaccines for Immigrants in Detention Centers

A group of physicians showed up at the headquarters of US Customs and Border Protection in San Diego, California, to protest the lack of influenza immunization of immigrants in detention centers. They did this because they have been offering to immunize detainees against influenza but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not allowed it, even after three children died in detention centers along the border from complications of influenza.

From The Washington Post:

“Sparked by the deaths of three migrant children in the last year due to complications from the flu while in federal custody, the three-day protest attracted left-leaning immigration activists and volunteer doctors, including four other demonstrators who were arrested on Tuesday, who offered to help vaccinate willing detainees for the winter.

The display from medical professionals irked by the Trump administration’s position ended on Wednesday after Border Patrol officials in San Diego told Bonnie Arzuaga and other protest leaders that they would pass along the request to offer free vaccines to detained migrants. The federal immigration officials forwarded the group’s letter to the agency’s chief medical officer, Arzuaga said, and told the doctors to expect a follow-up phone call later this week.

“I’ve never had to fight so hard to give a vaccination to anyone, any patient, any population of patients who have needed it the most,” Arzuaga, a Boston-based pediatrician of 11 years, told The Washington Post early Thursday. “As a physician, I’m saddened by the stance our government has taken to deny basic preventative medicine to the people it is holding in its custody.””

The physician group posted several videos of the protest and their ensuing arrest to social medial. Please be advised that it contains some adult language:

A few days ago, a letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended vaccination for detainees, but officials at CBP refused. Again, The Washington Post reports the story:

“The CDC recommendation was revealed in a letter from the agency to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC. The agency’s director, Robert Redfield, issued the letter Nov. 7 in response to questions DeLauro posed last month after the flu had taken a toll on migrants in U.S. custody during the past year.

An 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died of the flu while being detained near El Paso in December, a month before the CDC’s vaccination recommendation. In the months after CBP rejected the recommendation, at least two children — one in El Paso and one in Weslaco, Tex. — died after being diagnosed with the flu in Border Patrol custody, autopsy reports showed. Influenza outbreaks in Border Patrol detention facilities continued through May, sickening hundreds of people, including agents and detainees.

DeLauro said CBP’s continuing refusal to provide flu vaccines to detained migrants is “unconscionable,” especially given Trump administration policies and migrant influxes that at times have caused U.S. facilities to be significantly overcrowded.

“CDC’s recommendations are clear: flu vaccines should be administered to people as soon as possible to prevent the spread of this deadly disease,” she said. “Worse still, administration policies that kept families locked in cages for extended periods of time greatly increased their risk of illness.”

Officials with CBP have never provided immunizations for detained migrants and does not plan to do so now, according to Kelly Cahalan, an agency spokeswoman.”

Influenza kills between 12,000 and 61,000 people in the United States each year, sending between 140,000 and 810,000 people to the hospital, according to CDC. While the vaccine is not the best vaccine we have, the influenza vaccine has been shown to be effective at reducing illnesses and deaths in well-vaccinated populations. Concentrating unvaccinated people in places like detention centers, prisons and other similar institutions has been found to trigger epidemics of influenza and other vaccine-preventable diseases in the past.

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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