EU plans to buy measles, polio vaccines for Ukraine refugees

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BRUSSELS, March 15 (Reuters) - The European Union is planning to buy and distribute vaccines against measles, polio, tuberculosis and COVID-19 to immunise Ukrainian children and other unvaccinated Ukrainian refugees, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said on Tuesday.

Nearly three weeks into a Russian invasion, the number of Ukrainians fleeing abroad has approached 3 million, half of them children, according to estimates from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They have mostly gone to EU countries, and many more are expected. read more

"Vaccination coverage in Ukraine was very low for several vaccine preventable diseases, especially for children, such as tuberculosis, polio, measles, but also for COVID-19," Kyriakides told EU health ministers in a video-conference meeting on the Ukraine crisis, according to speaking points shared with the media.

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She added the bloc was planning to procure vaccines to immunise the refugees against these diseases.

Measles, polio and tuberculosis vaccination rates in Ukraine are estimated to be below the recommended levels to stop outbreaks, which the World Health Organization (WHO) sets at around 95% to achieve population-wide protection.

In 2020, 82% of Ukrainian children had been vaccinated against measles and about 93% of the population was immunised against tuberculosis. The latest figures on polio vaccinations show that 84% of children had been immunised, but the proportion dropped to 60% in some regions.

The EU has set up a mechanism to ease the transfer of sick Ukrainian refugees to hospitals across Europe to prevent healthcare facilities in neighbouring countries from being overwhelmed.

The first patients were transferred this week from Poland to Italy.

The EU is also planning to set up alongside the WHO triage hubs at the borders with Ukraine to make a first diagnosis and speed up medical transfers, Kyriakides said.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 are also possible given the low level of vaccination among Ukrainians and the cramped conditions in which they are travelling to the EU.

Fewer than 35% of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, half the EU average of over 70%, according to the WHO.

There are no plans at the moment for COVID-19 vaccination requirements for refugees, but campaigns to raise awareness on the need and availability of vaccines are being considered, an EU officials said.

"A vaccine mandate would not be the best way to begin welcoming Ukrainian people who flee the war," France's health minister Olivier Veran told a news conference at the end of the meeting, when asked whether refugees should be required to get a shot.

Kyriakides said that EU countries had at the moment enough spare doses to vaccinate Ukrainian refugees against COVID-19.

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Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio in Brussels; additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby in London Editing by Mark Potter and Jonathan Oatis

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