Officials Seek to Vaccinate Illegals For Swine Flu
WASHINGTON - With swine flu vaccinations set to begin in October, public health officials are mobilizing to ensure that the nation's estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants are vaccinated to protect themselves and the public.
Unlike the debate over whether illegal immigrants should get federal health care, there is little dispute they should be included in the nation's voluntary vaccination program.
"We believe it's important that all people be vaccinated regardless of immigration status if there's a pressing public health concern," said Jon Feere, legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants and wants to reduce immigration.
Leaving 10 million to 12 million immigrants unvaccinated against swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, would increase the health risk to everyone and make it much harder to control an epidemic, said Dr. Kevin Fiscella, associate professor of family medicine and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.
"We're all in this together," he said.
The swine flu virus is expected to hit children, teens and young adults especially hard - a vulnerability that's compounded by the fact that the immigrant population tends to be younger overall than the general population, health officials say.
But experts say state and local governments will have to overcome major barriers to persuade illegal immigrants to trust public health departments enough to come forward and get themselves and their children vaccinated.
"For an undocumented immigrant who lives in daily fear of being deported, contact with any quasi-governmental agency, even a public health department, induces anxiety," Fiscella said. "People worry, 'Are they going to ask me for my Social Security number?'"
Federal health officials are trying to quell those fears with assurances that no one will be asked to prove their immigration status to get a swine flu vaccine at any public health clinic or mass vaccination site.
"Whether you're legal or illegal, the flu virus doesn't discriminate and neither do we," said Arleen Porcell, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To get that message out, Porcell said, the CDC is @holding briefings with Hispanic media, buying ads in Spanish-language magazines and newspapers and working with nonprofit community and religious groups that provide aid to immigrants on a regular basis.
Although some children of illegal immigrants may get vaccinated at school, many will not, heath officials said. Vaccination plans vary from state to state and school to school.
"In many cases, the children are going to have to rely on parents to take them somewhere to be vaccinated," said Dr. Daniel Blumenthal, associate dean for community health at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Most of those families can't afford the $20 to $30 fee that drug stores typically charge at their vaccination clinics, Blumenthal said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said this week that the federal government is urging clinics not to charge patients. The vaccine itself is provided free by the federal government, but some clinics or retail stores are charging a fee to cover administrative costs.
"We've asked the providers to strongly consider not charging fees so there will be no financial barriers to vaccination," Sebelius said in a conference call with regional reporters. "We can't make that mandatory, but a lot of voluntary agreements have been made."
While public health officials are working to reach as many people as possible in the United States, customs officials and border patrol agents are trying to make sure that foreign visitors, Americans coming home from overseas trips and illegal border-crossers don't end up infecting more people.
At international airports, customs officials are on the lookout for arriving passengers who appear to be sick, either with swine flu or some other type of communicable disease.
People with symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and red eyes are taken aside to be checked by health officials to see if they need medical treatment or can be sent on their way, said Kelly Ivahnenko, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
At the Southwest and Northern borders, agents are doing the same thing. Anyone caught crossing the border illegally who appears sick will be assessed and treated if necessary before being deported, Ivahnenko said.
"We're obviously not going to deny entry to citizens or lawful travelers, but we're being vigilant for signs that they need medical help," she said.
But spotting someone with swine flu is not always easy, Ivahnenko said.
"The challenge with H1N1 is that you can be infected and not show symptoms for a couple of days," she said. "And, by then, they're already moving around the country."
Contact Erin Kelly at ekelly(AT)gannett.com.