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Half of migrants piling into NYC not vaxxed for polio, top doc warns


A startling 50% of migrants streaming into the Big Apple are not vaccinated against the contagious and potentially deadly poliovirus, city Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan recently revealed — as he urged doctors to help prevent a public health emergency, The Post has learned.

Vasan also said the new migrants come from, or pass through, countries with high rates of infectious tuberculosis — and noted there’ve been outbreaks of chickenpox in shelters housing the newcomers.

“More than 50,000 people have come to New York City (NYC) in the past year shortly after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. As more people arrive and many make NYC their home, the scale and scope of need continues to grow,” Vasan said in an eight-page letter, dated April 11, sent to physicians and other health care providers. A copy was obtained by The Post.  

“I am writing now to underscore how critical it is that health care providers take a wide range of considerations into account when working with people who are seeking asylum … The scope of this letter represents the scale of the need. It is incumbent upon us as a welcoming city to comprehensively evaluate and meet these needs.”

Vasan said screening and vaccinating migrants for diseases and viruses that’ve been kept in check in the city is a top priority.

“Vaccination rates for certain diseases are low in some of the most common countries of origin, with rates hovering around 50% for polio as an example,” the commissioner said.

A crowd of migrants wait in line to see immigration officials in Manhattan on March 13, 2023.
Robert Mecea

The polio virus spreads through person-to-person contact, lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines — and can contaminate food and water in unsanitary conditions.

Paralysis is the most severe symptom of poliovirus because it can lead to permanent disability and death.

Between two and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from polio die because the virus damages the muscles that help them breathe, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jay Varma, who served as the senior health advisor to former Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the number of migrants not immune from polio is a cause for concern, but manageable.

“There is always a risk to public health when people are not vaccinated against important infectious diseases, such as measles and polio,” Varma said told The Post on Sunday.

“That said, the risk is not immediate, since there are high levels of vaccination among children and adults among current New Yorkers. As the Commissioner says, it is critical that the City work to provide newly arrived persons with medical care, and ensure that healthcare providers catch up newly arrived persons on their vaccinations, just as happens routinely for anyone accepted into the US through the regular immigrant or refugee resettlement programs.”

The potential for public health outbreaks is one of many concerns for officials concerned about absorving the migrant influx.

Mayor Eric Adams said the estimated city tab could hit $4.3 billion to cover shelter, food and other services for asylum seekers.

In his letter, the health commissioner said doctors should ask newcomers for their immunization records “but anticipate they may not be available,” adding any patient vaccine records should be entered into the Citywide Immunization Registry.

“Children should be screened and vaccinated urgently with all needed recommended immunizations, including those required for school attendance. Both influenza and COVID-19 vaccination should be offered to everyone age 6 months and older,” Vasan wrote.

He also said it was important to test for tuberculosis, an infectious bacterial disease characterized by the growth of nodules in the tissues, especially the lungs.

TB in the lungs or throat is often contagious, though it’s not infectious in other parts of the body, like the kidney or spine.

Migrants arriving in Manhattan on a bus from El Paso, Texas on September 6, 2022.
Robert Miller

People with TB are most likely to spread it to people they spend time with every day, like family members.

“Many people who recently arrived in NYC have lived in or traveled through countries with high rates of TB,” Vasan said.

He said people with symptoms of active TB should be promptly evaluated and tested, including chest X-rays.

He said the city Health Department’s clinics provide treatment at no cost to patients, regardless of their immigration status.

Migrants should be asked if they have TB symptoms, such as extended coughing and coughing with blood, fever or night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.

“Health care providers should also assess all immigrants who recently arrived in the U.S. for latent TB infection,” said the commissioner.

Migrants entering a shelter at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal on February 2, 2023.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The letter said migrants have been infected with chicken pox.

“An outbreak of varicella is occurring among families who recently arrived and are residing in shelters and other facilities in NYC. Most cases have been among unvaccinated children, but cases have also occurred among young adults,” the letter said.

Chickenpox is a highly contagious and causes an itchy, blister-like rash on the skin; it is not considered life-threatening.

“Vaccinate children and adults with no or an unknown history of varicella or vaccination urgently,” Vasan said.

Typically, individual cases of varicella don’t need to be reported to the Health Department.

But the commissioner said because of the recent outbreak with migrants, chickenpox cases in shelters need to be reported to the Health Department Provider Access Line.

He also urged doctors to get migrants up to speed with COVID-19 shots.

“COVID-19 continues to circulate in NYC,” the commissioner said. “Some people may have received initial COVID-19 vaccinations at the U.S.-Mexico border but may not have received additional immunizations in the U.S,” he wrote.

Elsewhere, the migrants need to be screened for trauma, given the often grueling and risky journey endured just to get across the Mexico-US border border and end up in New York, as well as check for sexually transmitted diseases and maternal health, he urged.

“For many people who are seeking asylum, finding refuge entails traveling long distances and enduring numerous experiences before getting help. Despite being resilient, many people seeking asylum are at elevated risk for experiencing poor mental health due to traumatic pre- and post-migration experiences and preexisting social and mental health conditions that can impair their ability to cope,” the letter said.

Equally important is helping migrants apply for public health insurance since they’re mostly eligible despite their undocumented or uncertain immigration status, pending asylum applications.

Children under age 18 are eligible for the Child Health Plus public health insurance program, regardless of immigration status. 

Pregnant women are eligible for Medicaid, regardless of immigration status and paroled immigrants — those allowed to temporarily love or work in the US — may be eligible for public health insurance.

Others will at least qualify for Emergency Medicaid, which pays medical costs like hospital admission and treatment.

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