November 2015 euroWHO; A WHO high-level meeting focused on refugee and migrant health, hosted by the Italian Government, opens today in Rome. The attendees, including ministers of health and high-level representatives from the countries of the WHO European Region and from other WHO regions, will discuss how countries and partner organizations can improve health care and coverage for refugees and migrants. The aim is to agree on a common approach and joint action for meeting the health needs of these vulnerable groups.
In 2015, nearly 2 million refugees and migrants have taken shelter in Turkey, while over 700 000 have entered other countries in the European Region. Up to 5% of these people need medical assistance, faced with health issues such as accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, cardiovascular events, pregnancy- and delivery-related complications, diabetes and hypertension. Factors such as mass population movement, water shortage and inadequate shelter and sanitation also increase the risks for acquiring communicable diseases.
“Health systems in the European Region, including those of countries that receive refugees and migrants, are well equipped to diagnose and treat common infectious and noncommunicable diseases,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “But we, as a Region, must seek to ensure that all countries are adequately prepared and organized to withstand the added pressures of supporting a mass influx of people, while at the same time protecting the health of their resident populations. A good response to the challenges of people on the move requires health system preparedness and capacity, including robust epidemiological data and migration intelligence, careful planning, training and, above all, adherence to the principles of equity, solidarity and human rights.”
Because of the increased risk for communicable diseases, vaccination is a key consideration to be discussed at the meeting. Joint recommendations from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO provide guidance for countries on vaccinating refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in the European Region. These recommendations specify that asylum-seekers and migrants should be vaccinated without unnecessary delay according to the national immunization schedules of any country in which they will probably reside for more than a week. In view of recent measles outbreaks in the Region, countries should prioritize vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and polio. Governments should consider providing documentation of vaccination to avoid unnecessary re-vaccination later. Vaccination is not recommended at border crossings unless there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease in the host or transit country.
Many countries, particularly those on the front line of large-scale migration, have already undertaken vaccination campaigns for new arrivals. Their efforts should be applauded, as should other measures taken to ensure adequate health care for refugees and migrants. However, these groups still face many complex challenges, including limited access to health services, due to high cost, lack of information and administrative, cultural or language barriers. Large-scale migration places immense and often unexpected pressure on the health systems of hosting countries, testing both their capacity and their preparedness.
The Rome meeting will last for 2 days and, in addition to covering the primary health challenges and priorities of refugees and migrants, will seek ways in which WHO/Europe and other partners can best support countries in responding to the current crisis.
“A common framework for joint action on refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region is of urgent importance,” said Dr Jakab. “We look forward to using the meeting in Rome to shape such a framework and to agree on collective actions that will help ensure the health and well-being of these vulnerable populations.”