Opinion: Denying flu vaccinations to border detainees isn’t just cruel, it’s dangerous


Flu is such a regular part of our lives — the seasonal “flu vaccinations here” signs outside of pharmacies, the not-so subtle notifications from healthcare providers to get immunized, the regular absences of sick co-workers — that it’s easy to forget it’s one of the world’s deadliest viruses.

The number of people who die from flu or from its complications varies year to year, depending on the severity of the particular strain circulating (the influenza virus is constantly mutating, which makes vaccine-making basically educated guesswork).

But even in relatively “good” years, it’s bad. Globally, between 291,000 and 646,000 people die every year from influenza-related causes, between 3,000 and 49,000 of them in the United States.

And when it’s a bad flu year, it’s terrible. During the 2017 flu season, when the vaccines were particularly ineffective, about 80,000 people in the U.S. died after being infected. The 1918 Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

All of this is to say that influenza is not a virus to sneeze at. It’s a killer, and the decision by U.S. Customs and Border Protection not to provide vaccinations to migrant families being detained at the border is dangerous and short-sighted.


The CBP’s justification, which came in response to questions from physicians about health conditions at the facilities, is that border detention is intended to be short-term, and that once children are transferred into the Department of Health and Human Services’ care, they can get vaccinations and other necessary treatment.

That may be theoretically true. But the reality is that some children have been held in the border facilities for much longer than the three days permitted under the law — and now the Trump administration says it plans to hold migrant families in detention indefinitely. This is a public health crisis waiting to happen. The cramped and unsanitary conditions that have been reported at detention camps are ideal breeding grounds for infectious disease — basically a Disneyland for influenza.

It’s also cruel. Have you ever had the flu? I have. It’s excruciating even when you are in a clean, safe home and surrounded by caring people.

But more important, it takes about two weeks after getting the flu vaccine to develop the antibodies that protect against infection. The sooner vaccines are administered to immigrants, the better the protection for them and anyone they come into contact with. There’s also a financial benefit to be had. Hospitalizations are much more expensive than vaccinations.

This is not a hypothetical threat. In the last year, three kids in immigration detention have died of influenza. That’s three too many.

Even those who might approve of denying healthcare treatment to detainees on the grounds that they are not legal residents and their health is not our concern ought to see that this is not a smart approach to public health. Like it or not, the detainees are on American soil, and it endangers the health of everyone, no matter their legal status, to allow a disease to thrive.


CBP should do the smart and humane thing and provide influenza vaccinations to detainees.


8:23 a.m. Aug. 21, 2019: This post was updated to reflect the Trump administration’s announcement Wednesday of a new detention policy for migrant families.