Refugee Policy Needs a Shot in the Arm

Sometimes we tend to be a little pennywise and Sudenese-pound foolish. And when it comes to the issue of vaccinations and refugees, that’s what U.S. policy has become, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Each year, some 50,000 refugees newly settle into the United States. That’s enough to populate an above-average-size town.

When immigrants look to enter the United States, they must demonstrate they’ve been immunized against 10 common communicable diseases. Not so for refugees. They can enter vaccination-free. Eventually, if they decide to stay, they’ll have to get those immunizations. And at far greater cost to their U.S. hosts than if they had gotten the shots before departing the refugee camps abroad.

For instance, pre-departure vaccinations for the 50,800 refugees that arrived in 2005 would have cost the U.S. government roughly $7.7 million. That’s $18.3 million less than what it would cost to administer those immunizations here, based on typical U.S. health care fees, the CDC reported. Indeed, only one of the required immunizations—for pneumococcus—routinely costs less in the United States than in the developing world, the report’s authors note in the March 7 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,.

U.S. policy does not advocate immunizing incoming refugees because all of those vaccinations would have to be borne by the federal government. An accompanying editorial observes that waiting until these people arrive in the States has indeed tended to shift the financial burden for many of them to state or local agencies.

That may help the balance sheet for federal agencies, but it won’t help the taxpayers. Refugees don’t pay for their shots—we the people do. And whether the money is taken from some pot of taxes collected by Uncle Sam, from some nonfederal agency, or even a public-interest group makes little difference in the collective sense. We the people will still get hit up to pay—just by different administrators

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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