EU to prioritise evacuation of Ukrainian children in urgent need of care

"Children will be vaccinated through HERA [the EU's Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority] against diseases such as tuberculosis and polio," said Kyriakides, who is "in contact with industry and doctors' and nurses' associations".  EPA-EFE/LUKASZ GAGULSKI POLAND OUT [UKASZ GAGULSKI/EPA]

EU health ministers agreed on Tuesday (15 March) to first evacuate from Ukraine children in urgent need of care, following talks of a coordinated EU approach to the health crisis in the country. EURACTIV France reports.

As the war in Ukraine continues to intensify by the day, EU health ministers said they wanted “the most effective health cooperation possible”, particularly in caring for sick children.

“We need to organise the continuity of care for refugees, especially for children,” said French Health Minister Olivier Véran, whose country holds the rotating EU Council presidency.

In France, the regional health agencies, known as ARS, will identify reception capacities, especially in paediatric services and in the medico-social sector.

“We are in the process of formulating an initial proposal to facilitate evacuations, particularly of children with cancer, we are in discussion with Kyiv and Poland,” said Véran, adding that the first transfers could take place by the end of the week.

“The war affects their mental and physical health. We must give great importance to psychological care and do our best so that they can stay with their loved ones,” he added.

Vaccination of children is another issue that EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides brought up. According to the Ukrainian public health centre, around 80% of children are vaccinated against polio – not enough to achieve immunity.

Ukraine was hit by a polio outbreak before the start of the war, which led to a massive vaccination campaign, the UN’s children’s fund, UNICEF revealed on 5 March.

However, with war threatening the provision of electricity and because “without electricity, we cannot vaccinate”, UNICEF’s Deputy Director for Europe, Phillippe Cori, said he was “very concerned”.

Kyriakides said children will be vaccinated through HERA [the EU’s Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority] “against diseases such as tuberculosis and polio”, and added she was “in contact with industry and doctors’ and nurses’ associations”.

In terms of adult vaccination, Kyriakides warned that “Ukraine has lower rates against infectious diseases such as measles”.

Ukraine also has a low COVID-19 vaccination rate, with only 33% of the country having been fully immunised before the war, Kyriakides also said. EU ministers confirmed, however, that they had enough doses to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to refugees.

For Véran, however, the urgency was elsewhere. “The challenge in terms of health is not the increase in COVID-19 rates, but the need for these refugees to receive the necessary care,” he said. Non-vaccinated refugees would not be turned back at the border, Véran added.

COVID travel restrictions are eased for Ukrainians

For millions of Ukrainians fleeing from the war, EU countries are lifting COVID-19 travel restrictions. However, the ECDC and WHO Europe continue to highlight the importance of ensuring vaccination coverage among refugees in host countries. 

Transfering patients between states

The EU ministers also welcomed the EU’s “united and supportive” health response in Ukraine. “Tens of tonnes of medicines, tents and medical equipment have been sent. We have also put in place the evacuation of the sick and wounded from the war,” said Véran.

More needs to be done, however, especially by transferring the sick and wounded from war to different European hospitals, the ministers also admitted. To ensure the distribution is done in the best possible way, EU countries unanimously agreed that the needs of patients should be assessed before they are transferred to other bloc countries.

A total of “10,000 hospital beds in the member states will receive Ukrainian patients”, said Kyriakides, adding that the first patients had already been transferred “from Poland to Italy”.

The aim is not only to evacuate Ukrainian civilians but also to relieve the health services of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries, already weakened by the COVID-19 crisis.

Of the three million Ukrainians who have fled the war since 24 February, 1.79 million have found refuge in Poland, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR figures from Tuesday (15 March).

Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, has taken in 100,000 Ukrainians so far, which for a country of 2.6 million inhabitants, is quite significant.

“Moldova is, of course, also the country with the most limited resources, and we absolutely need financial and humanitarian assistance to be able to support this flow of refugees,” said Moldovan Prime Minister Mariana Turcani, calling the situation a “massive humanitarian crisis”.

From the start of the war until 6 March, a total of 406 civilians – of which 27 children – had died, according to figures from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

But Véran said that “the real toll is surely much higher.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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