Since its inception, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been working to improve immunization coverage for migrants and forcibly displaced persons across the world.
“Vaccines are one of our most important and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks, protect individuals, and therefore keep entire communities safe and healthy,” says IOM Director General António Vitorino. “In coordination with partners — national and local health authorities, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, among others — IOM has been a key player in global efforts to ensure that people on the move, including refugees, asylum seekers, migrants in irregular situations, and hard-to-reach people such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and vulnerable host communities, have proper access to vaccines.
Over 74 countries, 20 diseases, hundreds of thousands protected
In 2019, IOM carried out vaccination activities in over 74 countries, routinely, as part of national mass vaccination campaigns or in response to outbreaks. IOM provides vaccinations either directly or through reliable external providers. The Organization’s vaccination efforts span three major areas of focus: global vaccine procurement and introduction of new vaccines, improving vaccine coverage and equitable access for migrants and people in crisis, and strengthening national immunization systems.
Depending on the context, IOM performed immunizations against at least 20 vaccine-preventable diseases: cholera, diphtheria, Haemophilus influenzae type b, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus, influenza, Japanese encephalitis, measles, meningitis, mumps, pertussis, pneumococcal infection, polio, rotavirus, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis, varicella and yellow fever.
In emergency settings, in 2019, more than 380,750 children were vaccinated against polio and/or measles.
As part of IOM’s pre-migration health activities, over 445,800 vaccination doses were administered to close to 181,350 migrants and refugees in the process of migration on behalf of a variety of receiving countries, including Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
IOM’s robust vaccine infrastructure
In non-emergency settings, IOM procures vaccines from reputable manufacturers and distributors and prioritizes the procurement of WHO-pre-qualified vaccines for the programmes.
Delivering vaccination services in many settings where IOM works — particularly in remote locations or in countries with weak health systems — requires a robust vaccine distribution and storage system. When a vaccine is too hot or too cold, it becomes less effective or can even become inactive. If stored at an incorrect temperature, the doses can be destroyed and no longer provide appropriate protection. Most vaccines need to be stored at temperatures between 2°C and 8°C but some require temperatures as cold as -20°C or even -70°C. As regular refrigerators cannot maintain an even temperature consistently, special medical refrigerators are required.
All of IOM’s migration health assessment centres have cold chain equipment, such as cold boxes, ice-lined refrigerators, digital thermometers, temperature data loggers and generators. Temperature monitoring and alert systems are in place in case of power outages.
In addition, staff are provided with ongoing training to deliver vaccinations in line with international standards, including vaccine handling, administration, management of adverse effects, maintenance of cold chain, and vaccination-related health education.
Continued expansion and preparation for COVID-19 vaccine delivery
IOM works continuously to expand immunization coverage for migrants and displaced persons. In November 2020, an agreement was signed with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to reach missed communities in humanitarian and emergency settings with vaccination and support routine immunization through engagement in primary health care systems. The partnership also aims to boost advocacy for the prioritization of vulnerable populations, support operational and policy assistance and facilitate technical collaboration.
Specifically, the memorandum of understanding seeks to facilitate collaboration on ensuring the inclusion of migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in governments’ COVID-19 responses, in particular vaccination efforts through the COVID-19 Vaccine Access (COVAX) Facility.
“Decisions on distribution should be made based on sound public health principles, and in line with international prioritization recommendations. This is no time for nationalist or xenophobic reactions and narratives,” adds the IOM Director General.
“Governments should count and include all migrants present in their territories — no matter their legal status — in their vaccine distribution considerations”.
IOM stands ready to support governments in their immunization efforts, to ensure migrant inclusion in all national vaccine distribution plans, as well as in other essential health services.