BRUSSELS, March 15 — The European Union is planning to buy and distribute vaccines against measles, polio, tuberculosis and Covid-19 to immunise Ukrainian children and other unvaccinated Ukrainian refugees, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said today.

Nearly three weeks into a Russian invasion, the number of Ukrainians fleeing abroad has approached three million, half of them children, according to estimates from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They have mostly gone to EU countries, and many more are expected.

“Vaccination coverage in Ukraine was very low for several vaccine preventable diseases, especially for children, such as tuberculosis, polio, measles, but also for Covid-19,” Kyriakides told EU health ministers in a video-conference meeting on the Ukraine crisis, according to speaking points shared with the media.

She added the bloc was planning to procure vaccines to immunise the refugees against these diseases.

Measles, polio and tuberculosis vaccination rates in Ukraine are estimated to be below the recommended levels to stop outbreaks, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) sets at around 95 per cent to achieve population-wide protection.

In 2020, 82 per cent of Ukrainian children had been vaccinated against measles and about 93 per cent of the population was immunised against tuberculosis. The latest figures on polio vaccinations show that 84 per cent of children had been immunised, but the proportion dropped to 60 per cent in some regions.

The EU has set up a mechanism to ease the transfer of sick Ukrainian refugees to hospitals across Europe to prevent healthcare facilities in neighbouring countries from being overwhelmed.

The first patients were transferred this week from Poland to Italy.

The EU is also planning to set up alongside the WHO triage hubs at the borders with Ukraine to make a first diagnosis and speed up medical transfers, Kyriakides said.

Outbreaks of Covid-19 are also possible given the low level of vaccination among Ukrainians and the cramped conditions in which they are travelling to the EU.

Fewer than 35 per cent of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, half the EU average of over 70 per cent, according to the WHO.

There are no plans at the moment for Covid-19 vaccination requirements for refugees, but campaigns to raise awareness on the need and availability of vaccines are being considered, an EU official said. — Reuters