ICE detention centres withheld vaccines from child migrants

child migrants, disease
© Tero Vesalainen

Over 12 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centres had multiple outbreaks of infectious disease – due to withholding vaccines for adult and child migrants

In the crowded conditions of ICE facilities, COVID-19 has been a serious concern for current detainees. Without a vaccine, social distancing is the only way to stop this pandemic. However, this is not possible when people inside an ICE facility have no decision in how they will be grouped. The Intercept, who have previously investigated a surgeon giving detained women infertility, found that ICE were responding to COVID-19 symptoms with solitary confinement. 

For so many, the mental health consequences of isolation are too much. Even outside of ICE, throughout the pandemic, we have seen people complain about the mental health impact of living alone. In a facility that seeks to punish its detainees, this technique is a way to keep individuals from protesting.

While COVID-19 raised these concerns, researchers looked further to see how non-COVID diseases were handled by the Immigration authority.

‘The numbers are pretty shocking’

Researchers at UC San Francisco found the discrepancy when examining data obtained from a formal request to ICE and Homeland Security, cataloguing the health of detainees from January 1, 2017, to March 22, 2020.

The infectious outbreaks included clinical influenza, varicella, and mumps. Adult and child migrants at the facilities involved were not given vaccinations, despite being vulnerable to this kind of disease.

“These numbers are pretty shocking, and very concerning,” said Nathan C. Lo, MD, PhD, the first author, who is a resident physician and public health scientist at UCSF.

“They suggest this vulnerable population is being placed at very high risk for these infections while being detained.”

The facts and figures

Nearly half of the infections, 44.7%, occurred in the South Texas Family Residential Center. Another 16.5% occurred at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, also in Texas.

“Typically, migrants are detained, held for a few days, then moved to another center,” Lo said.

“That moving around of people is likely a big contribution. Otherwise, how would you get so many outbreaks in so many centers with infections that are not so common?”

One facility had a chickenpox outbreak that lasted for 33 months, and also had year-round transmission of the influenza virus. The peak ages for influenza were 4 years old, and 24 years old – children as young as 4 experienced a completely avoidable disease. Many centres had outbreaks of mumps. Both chickenpox and mumps are relatively rare in the general population, and flu typically circulates in the winter, but not all year round.

The study most likely underestimates the number of infections. The scientists were only able to get data from the 22 places that have the ICE electronic health record system and are served by ICE Health Service Corps. That is a small subset of the 315 facilities around the country, some of which are privately managed, that house detained migrants – this means that this study sheds light on a fraction of the possible health crises unfolding behind closed doors.

There are serious questions to be asked about why this medical neglect is still occurring, especially for children.

Read the full findings, published in JAMA, here.


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