Netflix's 'Pandemic' highlights US govt's inaction to curb influenza among migrants in detention camps

An autopsy revealed that an eight-year-old who died in US detention center had influenza, and wasn't screened for the flu when he showed symptoms


                            Netflix's 'Pandemic' highlights US govt's inaction to curb influenza among migrants in detention camps
(Getty Images)

"Unvaccinated migrants in US detention camps are the public health issue disaster waiting to happen," Dr Eve Shapiro, a pediatrician, in the Netflix documentary 'Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak' says. The death of an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy Felipe Gomez Alonzo in a detention center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on December 24, 2018, sent shockwaves across the country as activists and lawmakers slammed President Donald Trump and his controversial immigration policies for the death of the child. Although the Trump administration attempted to blame the cause of the death on the migrant family, an autopsy revealed that the boy had influenza, and was not screened for the flu when he showed symptoms in custody.

Ever since December 2018, three migrant children have died from the flu in facilities along the southwestern border of the country. Migrants at these facilities consistently complain of children sickened by cold temperatures, and physicians have warned that the crowded conditions in these centers can become a breeding ground for illnesses, like influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, had recommended that vaccinations should be provided to migrants older than 6 months "at the earlier point of entry."  Customs and Border Patrol officials, however, have failed to do that, even refusing doctors volunteering to administer free flu shots to such children.

Jenquel, who recently crossed the US-Mexico border with her mother and siblings, speaks with volunteers at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center on June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas (Getty Images)

The Netflix film highlights the work being done by Shaprio, who initiated a volunteering program to give flu shots to migrants at Casa Alitas, a temporary shelter for asylum seekers. She is assisted by Susan Filis, a retired nurse volunteering to help the immigrants. Migrants generally stay at the shelter for two nights before going to their final destination and it houses up to 200 migrants at a time. 

"Influenza is very hard to predict. It takes one person — one host — to lead to a pandemic," Dr Syra Madad, Senior Director, Special Pathogens Program, says in the film, highlighting how more attention needs to be paid to the spread of the virus. Experts in the film question people's understanding of how dangerous the flu is, with one stating that the Ebola outbreak sparked a widespread scare, however, it is the influenza outbreak that takes more lives, and governments across the world should be more aware and wary of it. 

Immigrant children read and play at an aid center after being released from US government detention on November 3, 2018 in McAllen, Texas (Getty Images)

Dennis Carroll, Director, Emerging Threats, US Agency for International Development, says that influenza and other respiratory viruses are the ones to be more scared about as they spread at a rapid rate. Carroll says that the much-talked-about Ebola virus was largely contained in Africa, and affected nearly 50,000 people while the H1N1, otherwise known as the swine flu, spread at a rapid rate, and affected nearly 2 billion people across the world. "It was luck that the swine flu was not more lethal, otherwise hundreds of children and adults would have died," he says. Carroll pointed out that US, in 2019, witnessed one of the country's worst outbreaks of measles, suggesting that these viruses, which were once considered to be an obsolete threat are making a recurrence — because of vaccine misinformation.

A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the US. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas (Getty Images)

The World Health Organization, in 2019, deemed the refusal to vaccinate as one of the biggest health threats of 2019, right after Ebola. The film also shows the anti-vaxxer movement in the US with dozens of people rallying against a Bill in Salem making it mandatory for children to get vaccinated before joining schools. The film features a family of six, where the mother, Caylan Wagar, teaches her five children about consent and freedom and how the Bill would take that away. She talks about the choice for the family to remain unvaccinated if they wish to attend school. "We are advocating to our children 'My body my rules' and that is being stripped away," Wagar says. 

As the misinformation about vaccines spreads in the US and Americans become more wary of vaccination, the migrants are shown as increasingly accepting of the flu shots. Even adult migrants come to facilities like Casa Alitas to get the vaccination. However, Dr Shapiro and others like her are struggling to continue vaccinating the migrants with nearly no funds to assist them in their endeavor. There is a shortage of funds to procure the flu shot dosages, which means that the volunteers are forced to choose between the migrants coming to them for shots, ultimately — with their dwindling supplies — they resort to choosing children and women first. Many of the adult males and females are sent back.  No federal initiative has been taken by the Trump administration to provide flu vaccinations to immigrants at entry points till now.

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