Hamilton health officials rush to immunize Syrian refugees

Many Syrian refugees arrive in Hamilton with no immunization records, says Hamilton's medical officer of health. So public health officials are trying to immunize them for diptheria, polio, chicken pox and other potential illnesses as quickly as possible.

Workers are holding immunization clinics in hotel conference rooms for measles, mumps and other ailments

A Syrian man and his child wait in a refugee camp in Greece last fall. More than 988 refugees have come to Hamilton, and public health officials are rushing to make sure they have proper vaccinations. (Muhammed Muheisen/The Associated Press)

Local public health officials are holding mass vaccination clinics to make sure nearly 1,000 Syrian newcomers to Hamilton are immunized for ailments such as polio, measles, chicken pox and diptheria. 

And with many of the refugees in hotel rooms awaiting housing, public health staff are hustling to get the immunizations done as quickly as possible. 

Public Health has held five clinics in the past week, some in hotel conference rooms, to make sure the new arrivals are properly immunized. It plans more this month.

Some of our non-urgent work has been put aside for a while.- Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health

Some of the Syrian newcomers arrive with immunization records, said Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health. But most have no records at all to show they're protected against illnesses such as tetanus and rubella.

There's no evidence of any of those ailments among the 988 government-sponsored Syrian refugees who have arrived in Hamilton since late last year — more than double the expected number. But the need is pressing enough that Public Health workers are being pulled off less urgent projects to staff the clinics.

"I wouldn't use the term urgency, but it's something we need to make sure gets done in a timely way," Richardson said.

"It's a pretty significant undertaking for us. Some of our non-urgent work has been put aside for a while."

Immunization is a particularly pressing issue because about 400 of the refugees are living in hotels for a month or more as they look for affordable housing. Such settings heighten the need to immunize against communicable disease, Richardson said.

So Public Health has been reassigning staff on non-urgent files to the clinics, Richardson said. Some policy and health strategy work is being delayed.

We have asked the health sector to track any extraordinary costs.- David Jensen, Ontario Ministry of Health spokesperson

There's also the issue of money. The vaccines are publicly funded, Richardson said, but the staff time threatens to cause a budget crunch. She expects to ask Ontario's Ministry of Health for more money.

For its part, the ministry is talking to the federal government about money for refugee health issues, said spokesperson David Jensen.

"We have asked the health sector to track any extraordinary costs associated with providing health care during the resettlement process," Jensen said.

Public Health is also working to find primary health care for the newcomers. Richardson hopes those primary health care providers will do follow-up vaccinations as part of their routine care.

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