COVID-19 isn’t necessarily their worst problem. That was the message from experts in humanitarian relief at a virtual Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Forum on Monday to those designing vaccination campaigns in areas of conflict, war, and unrest.
That doesn’t mean throwing up one’s hands and giving up the fight against the pandemic in these remote and hazardous areas, but it does mean thinking hard about what such a campaign should look like: potentially just a part of a bundle of health services and assistance. Displaced people can be more desperately in need of food, water, shelter, and safety than they are a COVID vaccine. For those not displaced but living in an area controlled by militia or other non-state actors, a suite of childhood immunizations may be needed in addition to COVID-19 shots for adults. In fact, depending on the level of information and misinformation in a region, parents may be more eager for inoculation against a long-feared disease like polio than for one they may never have heard of or whose relative danger they may doubt.
“You cannot do COVID-19 vaccines in isolation,” said Esperanza Martinez, head of the COVID-19 Crisis Team for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “In conflict zones you have drops of vaccination in polio and measles and mumps and rubella from 60 to 90 percent, depending on the countries you’re talking about. So when we look at mortality in the future or disability in the future, those are diseases that we need to prevent today.”
Martinez was part of the Chan School panel discussion, “Calling a Pandemic Ceasefire: Vaccinating in Conflict Zones.” The hourlong event also featured Jennifer Leaning, senior research fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Claude Bruderlein, director of the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation and an adjunct lecturer on global health at the Chan School; and Madeline Drexler, a journalist and visiting scientist at the Chan School.