Officials Push Swine-Flu Shots for Migrants

Erin Kelly, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), September 26, 2009

With swine-flu vaccinations set to begin next month, public-health officials are mobilizing to ensure that the nation’s estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants are vaccinated.

And unlike the divisive debate over whether illegal immigrants should get federal health care, there is little dispute that they should receive the H1N1 shots.

“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 up to 12 million immigrants unvaccinated–an estimated 500,000 in Arizona–would increase the health risk to everyone and make it much harder to control the epidemic, said Dr. Kevin Fiscella, associate professor of family medicine and community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.

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Most of the general public will likely have to wait until at least December for their immunizations.

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 then and get themselves and their children vaccinated.

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Federal health officials are trying to quiet those fears with assurances that no one will be asked to prove their immigration status to get a vaccine at any public-health clinic or mass-vaccination site.

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The county [Maricopa] has created special public-service announcements and done frequent interviews to educate people about the H1N1 virus, said Jhoana Molina, coordinator of the hard-to-reach populations program at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

Working with Univision, the department has even set up phone banks that Spanish-speaking residents can call to talk to nurses and other health personnel to get information about virus prevention, Molina said. She said similar efforts will be made to get the word out about vaccination-clinic locations once the vaccine arrives in Arizona in October.

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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 Arizona, state health officials are working with school nurses to prepare for mass-vaccination clinics at some public schools, according to a report posted on the Web site of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

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The vaccine itself is provided free by the federal government, but some clinics or retail stores are charging a fee to cover administrative costs.

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While public-health officials are working to reach as many people as possible inside the United States, customs officials and Border Patrol agents are on the lookout for people entering the country who appear to be sick.

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.

“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.

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