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Measles could be a risk for many refugees

The large number refugees arriving in Finland this year has created a backlog of medical examinations and vaccinations for asylum seekers. There are concerns among health officials that many may be at risk of infectious disease, especially measles.

Turvapaikanhakijoita Kouvolan Keltakankaan tilapäismajoituksessa.
Turvapaikanhakijoita Kouvolan Keltakankaan tilapäismajoituksessa. Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva

The National Institute for Health and Welfare THL recommends that all asylum seekers go through screening for infectious diseases no later than two weeks after arrival in the country. At present, however, examinations are well behind the recommended schedule.

"We have delays in the examinations at reception centres. At some locations it has been a challenge to get health examinations started," says Inkeri Mellanen, a senior advisor at the Finnish Immigration Service.

"With the rapid establishment of new emergency housing units, of course, there has not necessarily immediately been a health nurse available. They have to first be recruited. My impression is that there have not been very bad delays," Mellanen adds.

Measles a risk for the unvaccinated

According to officials, there have been no outbreaks of infectious disease at any of Finland's reception centres or emergency housing units, but there have been, for example, some suspected cases of tuberculosis.

"There is no panic rush to vaccinate asylum seekers, but some have not been vaccinated against measles and some have never had the disease. The risk of a measles epidemic is relatively high and some screening needs to be done and vaccinations given to prevent an epidemic," explains Mika Salminen, Director of Department for Infectious Disease Control at THL.

Inkeri Mellanen says that healthcare is not dependent upon preliminary examinations, "Anyone showing symptoms is immediately taken from a reception centre to [local] healthcare facilities."

According to Mika Salminen, there may be cases of tuberculosis among asylum seekers, even if it is not prevalent in their home countries, "Someone could have been infected along the way, for example in a refugee camp."

High polio risk in Iraq and Syria

According to the World Health Organization, polio has been eradicated in most parts of the world, but there are still countries where a high level of risk remains, among them Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Finland has taken in asylum seekers from these countries and is likely to see more arriving.

Those who do arrive from these countries need to be inoculated against polio, if they have not been vaccinated or if they lack information about what past vaccinations they have received.

Polio was eradicated in Finland in the 1960s, but a resurgence in 1984 was brought under control by a vaccination campaign targeting the whole population.

Since some asylum seekers may have low or no immunity to a number of infectious diseases, the THL is advising anyone working with or housing refugees to make sure that their own vaccinations are up to date.

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