Vaccine Equity & Access in Crisis

COVID-19 Vaccination Updates from Conflict-Affected and Fragile States

Equity & Access in Crisis

COVID-19 Vaccination Updates from Conflict-Affected and Fragile States

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Countries have administered 75% of all COVID-19 Vaccines
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Countries have administered 75% of all COVID-19 Vaccines
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Countries have administered 75% of all COVID-19 Vaccines

Table of Contents

This report is a live report, and was last updated on March 10 by the MedGlobal team. MedGlobal provides innovative and accessible healthcare to refugees, displaced persons, and other vulnerable communities in crisis-affected and low-resource settings. This report focuses on COVID-19 vaccine accessibility in 7 of our countries of operation: Bangladesh, Colombia, Gaza, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Latest Updates:

  • 10 countries have administered 77% of all COVID-19 vaccines.
  • 118 countries have administered at least one vaccine dose.
  • The global vaccination rate is 8.25 million doses per day on average. 
  • Country Update: On March 1, Colombia became the first country in the Americas to receive vaccines through the COVAX program, receiving 117,000 doses
  • Country Update: On March 3, Sudan became the first country in the Middle East and North Africa region to receive vaccines through the COVAX program, receiving more than 800,000 doses.  

The world has entered the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. After over 110 million global infections and 2.4 million deaths from the virus, the growing number of COVID-19 vaccines offer a glimmer of hope. COVID-19 vaccines help to lead to ‘herd immunity’ when vaccine coverage of specific populations reaches sufficient levels, and reduces morbidity and mortality induced by the virus. However, while the availability of vaccines signals the beginning of the end of the pandemic, for the majority of the world the end is still a long way off. A key component of the global vaccination campaign is missing: equity and access.

Countries have experienced drastically unequal access to vaccines – of the approximately 319 million vaccine doses that have been administered as of March 10, over 77% of them were in only 10 countries. Around 90% of people in low-income countries are unlikely to receive a vaccine this year. For communities in conflict-affected and fragile states, the logistics of vaccine distribution – in addition to the financial constraints of purchasing adequate numbers of vaccines – create even more barriers to widespread vaccine access. 

MedGlobal was built on the vision of a world without healthcare disparity. Central to this vision is COVID-19 vaccine equity and access. 

The MedGlobal team has been leading critical COVID-19 responses in 11 countries around the world since March 2020, through direct health services, donations of essential equipment, building critical health infrastructure like oxygen generators, and virtual and in-person training and health education. Through these coordinated efforts, working with a diverse community of local health professionals and partner organizations, MedGlobal has learned about the local realities of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world facing the pandemic. This live report dives into equity and access issues being faced in the global COVID-19 vaccination campaign; COVID-19 and vaccine accessibility updates from 7 of our countries of operation – Bangladesh, Colombia, Gaza, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen; and recommendations for vaccine delivery from a strategic and community perspective. 

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Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. A Rohingya refugee receives healthcare in MedGlobal’s health clinic.

The Global COVID-19 Vaccine Status

COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, continues to be a major threat to health. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been over a hundred potential vaccines developed, though only a handful have made it to the final stage of human trials. The WHO and other trackers maintain updated lists of vaccines in the pipeline and provide the key data on vaccines which have demonstrated acceptable efficacy and tolerance to date. These vaccines vary in their composition from mRNA technologies to inactivated viruses to viral vectors, and include Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford University-Astrazeneca, Sinova, Sputnik V, Johnson & Johnson, and others.

Given this rapid development and production of vaccines, the planning for their purchase and delivery has been quite rapid. In April 2020, the WHO urged a global collaboration for COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, as there were no platforms that ensured this collaboration of member states. In response, a mixed public-private-sector response came in the form of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or ACT Accelerator, which is a global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. The key vaccines pillar of the ACT Accelerator became COVAX, co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the WHO. COVAX acts as a platform to support the development and manufacturing of a range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, and negotiate their pricing. All participating countries will have equal access to these vaccines once they are developed, working to ensure that no country, regardless of income level, is left behind in vaccine coverage. These points are laid out in the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which supports access and delivery of timely vaccines to the 92 low-to-middle-income (LMIC) countries, and the humanitarian buffer plan, where a buffer of up to 5% of the total number of available COVAX doses will be set aside as a backstop to use if national vaccination campaigns processes fail to reach certain populations – like refugees, asylum seekers, and frontline workers. 

As of early February, over 190 countries have either entered an agreement with or committed to joining COVAX. While COVAX is facing major funding shortfalls, it aims to deliver 2 billion vaccines in 2021, including at least 1.3 billion doses to the 92 LMICs. A country-by-country COVAX distribution forecast was released on February 3, showing an aim to provide participating countries with doses in proportion to their population size, reaching approximately 3.3% of each country’s population. Deliveries of these vaccines are supposed to begin in late February.

Refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and stateless people face even more barriers to access vaccines. Across at least 103 countries, forcibly displaced people have faced the effects of COVID-19. However, less than 57% of countries developing national vaccination strategies have considered refugees in their vaccination planning. On February 3, the UNHCR and Gavi signed an agreement with the goal of ensuring refugees and forcibly displaced persons can access vaccines on par with nationals, but there is still much advocacy needed from the UN at the country-level to push for refugees and other vulnerable populations to be included in responses.

Equity & Access

“Wildly uneven and unfair” is the latest description of COVID-19 vaccine distributions worldwide by the UN Secretary General. Vaccine access and equity is in crisis.

The universal need for vaccines lays bare the inequality in healthcare access between wealthy and lower-income countries, with an even greater disparity for particularly vulnerable communities within conflict-affected and fragile states. Countries with the resources to fund vaccine development have been able to secure large numbers of vaccines for themselves while leaving a small supply of vaccines for others.  

Of the approximately 319 million vaccine doses that have been administered as of March 10, over 77% of them were in just 10 countries. It’s estimated that around 90% of people in low-income countries are unlikely to receive a vaccine this year, and widespread vaccine coverage for more than 85 lower-income countries is not expected before 2023. 

Even when countries receive vaccines, disparities of distribution in-country is common. In the United States, communities of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, but have far less access to vaccination sites during the vaccine rollout. Vaccination planning at the country level – which varies country by country, particularly considering which populations are excluded from national plans and which groups are prioritized in the first phase of rollout – has the ability to lessen or exacerbate existing health disparities. According to UNHCR, only 94 out of the 130 countries it works in have committed to including forcibly displaced persons in national vaccine plans. In some countries, deliberate exclusion of specific areas or populations is feared as a weaponization of healthcare. For states with legacies of discrimination and mistrust between the state and certain populations, inclusion in vaccination plans may not be enough to ensure participation. Investment in outreach and education to both reduce stigmas surrounding vaccines and build trust are essential for effective and equitable vaccination campaigns

In countries with weak health systems, especially those experiencing humanitarian emergencies, economic crises, or conflict, the lack of capacity of the national government to manage the vaccination program – as well as lack of funding, reduced numbers of health workers, and crumbling infrastructure – may seriously hinder a vaccine rollout. For many crisis-affected and fragile states, structural inequities and access issues will hinder potential vaccination campaigns. For rural communities in fragile states, even if the vaccine was available, access to vaccination sites and comprehensive information could be anticipated as common barriers. In many countries where health infrastructure has been destroyed by conflict, such as Syria, Gaza, or Yemen, health facilities often do not have the capabilities – such as cold chain technologies and ultra-cold freezers – or reliable electricity to store certain COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer-BioNTech, leading to more limited supply options. 

The inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is not only an ethical issue, but also an issue of global health security. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 do not respect borders, and leaving states behind in the vaccination response is a threat to global health. As said by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Vaccine nationalism is self-defeating and would delay a global recovery.”

Vaccination Access: Key Countries

Use the graph below to compare vaccination rates between countries throughout the world. Data updated daily.

MedGlobal supports comprehensive health services and trainings in many conflict-affected and fragile states, where COVID-19 has compounded existing vulnerabilities to create crises within crises. This section looks at 7 of MedGlobal’s countries of operation, and explores the current scale of the COVID-19 outbreak, the status of the vaccination response, and additional challenges facing vulnerable populations such as refugees or displaced people.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. A Rohingya girl and her younger brother wait for a check up in MedGlobal’s health clinic.

Bangladesh

Total Population: 163 million
Total Confirmed cases:  552,087 (Mar 10)
Total Confirmed Cases among Rohingya Refugees: 421 (Mar 9)

More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees live in the most densely populated refugee camps in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. With limited access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, they live in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding and mudslides during the annual monsoon season. 

In May, when health officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 among the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar, there were no ICU beds in any of the refugee camps. There have been 421 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Rohingya refugees living in the camps and at least 10 have died after testing positive. 

Nationally, Bangladesh has begun an initial vaccine rollout after acquiring 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from India. As of March 10, more than 3.9 million doses have been administered. The Minister of Health has said that Bangladesh will also be receiving 68 million doses to vaccinate 34 million people through COVAX. While the government of Bangladesh initially reported that it would set up a special committee to handle vaccinations for Rohingya refugees in the country, the UNHCR has recently reported that Rohingya refugees will be included in Bangladesh’s national immunization plan and will likely be covered by the vaccines delivered through COVAX. Among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, only 30,000 are above 60. 

Labib Tazone

Labib Tazone
Bangladesh Program Manager

“While we have been lucky that the transmission of coronavirus has been kept under control in the refugee camps, it is important to remember that these are the most densely populated refugee camps in the world, and it is almost impossible to maintain physical distancing.”

Listen to his whole reflection here:

Cúcuta, Colombia. A displaced Venezuelan family gathers outside of their home.

Colombia

Total Population: 50 million
Total Confirmed cases: 2,278,861 (Mar 10)
Total Confirmed Cases among Venezuelans in Colombia: 22,705 (Mar 10)

Nearly 1.7 million Venezuelans are in Colombia as migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. Local communities and health systems have struggled to manage the influx of displaced Venezuelans, many of whom have dealt with years of malnutrition and a lack of access to healthcare.

Despite initial successes in coping with the spread of COVID-19, the outbreak escalated to a peak in Colombia in January 2021. Colombia has recently been struggling to manage the virus as daily infection rates increased. In January, intensive care units across several major cities reached 90% capacity, with more than a third of ICUs completely filled in the capital’s 60 hospitals.

On February 8, Colombia announced it would grant temporary legal status for 10 years to all Venezuelan migrants who entered the country prior to 2021. This is a critical step, as it allows for Venezuelans to access national health services including the vaccination campaign. At this point, the Colombian government has made agreements to purchase enough vaccines for 29 million people as part of its goal to vaccinate 34 million people. Beginning on February 17, Colombia plans to vaccinate one million people in the first 30 days. Frontline health workers will receive the first vaccines, followed by people over 80 years of age.

Angela Restrepo

Angela Restrepo
Colombia Program Manager

“Here, especially on the Colombia-Venezuela border, it has been a struggle to cope with COVID-19.”

Listen to her whole reflection here:

Gaza. A volunteer prepares to unload boxes of PPE provided by MedGlobal and Rahma Worldwide.

Gaza

Total Population: 1.9 million
Total Confirmed cases: 55,430 (Mar 2)

The Gaza Strip is home to 1.9 million Palestinians, the majority of whom face poor living conditions and a lack of access to basic needs. Endemic poverty has significantly worsened over the past decade with over 80% of the population now living in poverty compared to 39% in 2011. Years of a blockade, lack of access to resources and aid, and effects of conflict have eroded health infrastructure and brought the health system to a breaking point. 

According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, there have been 54,393 cases of COVID-19 and 543 deaths from the virus in Gaza as of February 21. The official number of cases is likely an underestimate due to a shortage of testing materials, issues related to access and freedom of movement, stigma related to the virus, and more. 

The collapsed economy, weak health system, and total blockade of Gaza pose insurmountable challenges to purchasing and distributing vaccines without ongoing international support. An initial supply of 2,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine was delivered to Gaza from the West Bank on February 17. Gaza also received 20,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine from the United Arab Emirates on February 21, with the vaccine rollout campaign beginning for health workers and people with chronic disease.

Raja Musleh

Raja Musleh
Gaza Program Manager

“The blockade and access issues we face will make it difficult for us to access vaccines for the majority of our population. We know first hand that the rollout of vaccines is not equitable or fair. “

Listen to her whole reflection here:

Beirut, Lebanon. A MedGlobal volunteer carries boxes of supplies and medications to be distributed to local hospitals.

Lebanon

Total Population: 6.85 million
Total Confirmed Cases: 401,826 (Mar 10)
Total Confirmed Cases among Syrian Refugees: 2,646 (Feb 10)
Total Confirmed Cases among Palestinian Refugees: 5,800 (Feb 16)
** Confirmed cases among Syrian refugees reported by the UNHCR, and likely a dramatic underestimate of the real number.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Lebanon was already dealing with a historic economic and political crisis that crippled the nation’s health system and pushed the majority of the population into poverty. The 1.7 million refugees in Lebanon, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees, experience an ongoing poverty crisis, with 88% of Syrian refugees living below the poverty line. 

The damaged economy and health system were further devastated by the rapid spread of COVID-19. Lebanon is experiencing a surge in cases with 5,000 new cases per day, a fivefold increase from November. Beirut hospitals are at 98% capacity and more than 2,300 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Many health facilities lack sufficient medical oxygen and ventilators to treat patients. 

Due to Lebanon’s financial crisis, the World Bank has paid for enough vaccines for 2 million people. The first vaccinations began on February 13 for frontline workers followed by people over the age of 75. Lebanon is also in the process of negotiating the purchase of 2 million doses from AstraZeneca and Sinopharm, and is set to receive 2.7 million doses from COVAX at some point in the future. Together, these vaccines would be able to reach over half of the country’s population. 

Human rights groups are raising important concerns that migrant workers are being excluded from the vaccination campaign. While the Lebanese government has said that it will vaccinate Syrian and Palestinian refugees along with the rest of the population, registration is extremely low among refugees. The UN recently released data showing that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the population as a whole, underscoring the importance of accessible vaccinations for refugees. With the high rates of poverty, Palestinian and Syrian refugees tend to have poorer baseline health conditions, making them more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19 coupled with co-morbidities.

Tania Baban

Tania Baban
Lebanon Program Manager

“It is essential that everyone in Lebanon, including Syrian refugees, the Palestinian population, and migrant workers, have access to COVID vaccines when they become more widely available in the country.”

Listen to her whole reflection here:

Sudan. MedGlobal volunteer carries a box of PPE.

Sudan

Total Population: 42.8 million
Total Confirmed Cases: 30,686 (Mar 10)

In 2020, Sudan faced record-breaking floods, internal displacement, and the beginning of a humanitarian emergency as more than 60,000 Ethiopian refugees fled into eastern Sudan. The transitional government’s ability to respond to these crises has been severely hindered by a struggling economy and the outbreak of COVID-19 that has overwhelmed the fragile health system. 

Sudan’s Ministry of Health has reported 24,118 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. However, the real number of cases is likely much higher according to a report by Imperial College London that estimated 98% of COVID-19 related deaths in the capital were unreported. 

In December, the Ministry of Health announced that it expects to receive 8.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX in the first quarter of 2021. The United Arab Emirates announced in January that it plans to supply Sudan with vaccines as well. However, it is not expected that Sudan will receive sufficient doses to vaccinate the majority of the population in 2021. With a growing displacement crisis in the Darfur region and uncertainty about the future for Ethiopian refugees now crowded in refugee camps in the east, there are numerous populations in Sudan that are not able to effectively socially distance and are particularly at-risk.

Abdelsamad Abdalla

Abdelsamad Abdalla
Sudan Program Manager

“Sudan will be receiving COVID vaccines through COVAX, but it may be several years until there are enough doses to vaccinate the majority of the population. People here in Sudan deserve the same access to vaccines and healthcare as all other countries in the world.”

Syria. A child stands in her family’s tent in a Syrian IDP camp. 

Syria

Total Population: Around 17 million
Total Confirmed Cases in Government-Held Areas: 15,981 (Mar 8)
Total Confirmed Cases in Northwest: 21,214 (Mar 10)
Total Confirmed Cases in Northeast: 8,689 (Mar 8)
** Confirmed cases are likely a dramatic underestimate of the real number.

The decade-long conflict in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s largest displacement crisis. Destruction of health facilities across Syria has exacerbated the humanitarian situation and severely crippled local and national capacities to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The scope of the COVID-19 outbreak in Syria is unknown due to underreporting, limited testing capacity and entrenched stigmas associated with the virus. Across all areas, the official COVID-19 caseloads are likely major underestimates. Local health systems lack the capacity to effectively treat cases as 70% of health workers have fled and there is a dire lack of personal protective equipment, medical oxygen, and ventilators across the country. 

The Syrian Ministry of Health is set to receive the first round of vaccines through COVAX, expected to begin in April. The Syrian Physicians Syndicate has also said that Russian and Chinese vaccines should be received in Syria in April. However, this initial vaccine rollout will only be enough to cover 3% of the population. There are also many unanswered questions around which areas will be included in the national vaccination plan, particularly if communities in the northeast will be included in the distribution plan. The decentralized nature of the health response – with government-controlled areas, the northwest, and the northeast each having distinct responses and separate governance systems – creates unique challenges for the vaccination campaign. In the northwest, the Syria Immunization Group has separately requested vaccine procurement through COVAX, with plans to implement a cross-border response. The health system in the northwest has already set up over 90 vaccination distribution centers to lead in vaccinations. Across Syria, there are also concerns about logistics – even if vaccines are procured and accessible, there is a lack of the necessary equipment and continuous access to electricity to properly handle and store certain COVID vaccines. Beyond logistical barriers, it is critical to address growing misinformation and stigma associated with COVID-19 to implement an effective vaccination campaign. Particularly with the uniquely decentralized distribution plans, ensuring equitable access to vaccines in Syria will be a difficult undertaking.

Zaher Sahloul

Dr. Zaher Sahloul
MedGlobal President

“Syria has been overwhelmed by COVID. Many hospitals were unable to even receive patients, and many patients were treated and died at home. Many healthcare providers died after getting infected. We think the official numbers represent less than 5% of the actual case and mortality numbers.”

Listen to his whole reflection here:

Yemen. A truck crosses a river on its way to deliver food and nutrition baskets in a remote area of Al-Hudaydah.

Yemen

Total Population: Around 29 million
Total Confirmed Cases: 2,590 (Mar 10)
** Confirmed cases are likely a dramatic underestimate of the real number.

After more than 5 years of conflict, 80% of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian aid and less than half of all health facilities are fully functioning. The hunger crisis in Yemen is now at the point of famine, as 16 million face food insecurity, including five million who are acutely food insecure. 

The true extent of COVID-19’s spread among the population is unknown due to limited testing, social stigma, misdiagnosis of symptoms, and more. In northern Yemen, COVID-19 cases are not being tracked or fed into the overall COVID-19-related data. Though it is a large underestimate, as of February 22, there have been 2,169 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Yemen and 620 official deaths from COVID-19. This amounts to nearly 29% mortality rate among confirmed COVID-19 patients, more than 10 times the global average. MedGlobal worked with a group of local doctors in Yemen to track the deaths of health providers from COVID-19, and found that over 100 health workers across the country reportedly died of COVID-19 within four months after the first recorded case.

Yemen is set to receive an initial vaccine supply of 2.3 million doses in March through COVAX. Saudi Arabia, a party to the conflict in Yemen, has also discussed supplying the Yemeni government with vaccines. Storing, transporting, and distributing vaccines across the country will be challenging due to the ongoing conflict, damaged infrastructure, and difficulty accessing communities, particularly those in northern Yemen.

Dr. Abass

Dr. Mohammed Abass
Yemen Program Manager

“Among those confirmed to have coronavirus [in Yemen], the mortality rate was extremely high. At one point, the official COVID mortality rate was the highest in the world.”

Listen to his whole reflection here:

Gaza. MedGlobal Program Manager, Raja Musleh, distributing critically needed PPE and supplies with partner Rahma Worldwide. 

Key Recommendations

Moving into the rest of 2021, it is essential that the global vaccination response prioritize equity and access. Based on feedback from our in-country, program, and medical experts we provide the following essential recommendations and advocacy points, specifically from the standpoint of refugees and displaced populations:

To Middle and Upper-Income Countries:

  • Countries should increase contributions to the COVAX facility and to share doses with COVAX in parallel with their national vaccine rollouts.
  • Countries should prioritize supplying to COVAX over new bilateral deals.

All Governments: 

  • All governments should ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are distributed for free.
  • Vaccine rollouts should begin with health workers and those people at greatest risk of COVID-19. It is critical to prioritize the most affected communities.
  • The principle of health equity should guide decision-making. Essential workers and the most affected communities – including refugees and displaced people themselves when applicable – should be involved in the strategic planning of vaccine programs.

UN and COVAX Facility:

  • COVAX, and particularly the humanitarian buffer and AMC branch, are critical in addressing equity of the vaccine distribution. However, COVAX does not address equity in the phase 1 distribution at the country level, specifically for special populations like refugees and displaced persons, which constitute over 80 million individuals globally.  Healthcare systems for refugees and displaced are already scarce and fragile, and outbreaks in these communities have dire consequences on the health, social, and economic situation of the individuals and their families.  A ‘fair priority model’, as presented by Emanuel et. al, which prioritizes vulnerable populations should be incorporated into COVAX agreements, at least for the initial vaccines distributions. This is a cost-effective approach, as it could help to prevent ‘aggregate economic damage’ ensued by an uncontrolled outbreak in refugee and displaced communities. 
  • A global collaboration by the humanitarian, social justice, and public sectors should further push the proposal set at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive the intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccine Manufacturers:

  • Vaccine manufacturers should increase their commitment to COVAX to guarantee access to vaccines of the most vulnerable populations and communities, including refugees and displaced people. NGOs experienced in vaccination programs for refugees should be consulted, so that the process of vaccination is safeguarded, especially with the technical aspects of vaccines.  

At the country level:  

  • Local NGOs and civil society organizations need to be involved in the strategic planning of vaccine programs at the country-level. 
  • Health education and awareness programs with clear, simple, and culturally salient information about vaccines should be conducted in camps, informal settlements, and vulnerable community settings to provide communities. 
  • Health education and training sessions for health personnel on the frontlines with refugees and displaced people should be conducted to ensure they are familiar with vaccine data and can accurately convey information.
  • Surveys and focus group discussions should be conducted with populations where there is particular resistance to COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. Understanding the specific concerns of local communities is critical to countering misinformation and incorporating local knowledge into vaccine rollouts.
  • The pillars of resilient health systems,global health equity, and social justice are essential in the planning and implementation of vaccination programs for displaced populations and refugees. 
  • Mechanisms for the follow-up of individuals vaccinated, including reporting of adverse effects, should be in place prior to implementation of vaccinations. 
  • The study of the efficacy of the vaccines in the refugee and displaced populations should be led by the UNHCR, with special considerations surrounding research on refugees and displaced people.