Discussion: The challenges of vaccinating people in conflict zones

A nurse prepares a syringe for a patient infected with the coronavirus in the intensive care unit at the Syrian American Medical Society Hospital

As nations around the globe continue to roll out their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns — followed by booster shots and jabs for children in some countries — administering doses to people in lower-income communities and conflict zones remains a challenge.

The struggles persist despite a call in March of 2020 made by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a global ceasefire to support a public health response. It was the first such appeal by the agency since its founding in 1945.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” Guterres said. “End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world.”

In February, the UN Security Council also passed Resolution 2565, which called for a “sustained humanitarian pause” in order to immunize the world.

Related discussion: Coronavirus surges, variants and the global vaccine rollout

But efforts to vaccinate people to stop the spread of the pandemic in conflict zones, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Ethiopia — where even basic humanitarian aid is often hard to come by — continue to be hampered.

Broadly speaking, UNICEF reports that around 40% of children who are not vaccinated or are under-vaccinated against diseases like measles and polio live in countries that are either partially or entirely affected by conflict.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation worse, with lockdowns and overstretched services affecting efforts to reach vulnerable populations. UNICEF says that immunization services were disrupted in more than 60 countries this year, which included those affected by conflict.

The humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps, which has services around the world, announced this past March that “countries facing the highest levels of conflict would likely be among the last to achieve widespread COVID-19 vaccination.”

As part of The World’s regular series of conversations on the pandemic with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reporter Elana Gordon moderated a discussion with a panel of experts about the difficulties of vaccinating populations in conflict areas.


Michael Fitzgerald
Editor-in-chief, Harvard Public Health Magazine

Claude Bruderlein
Director, Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, and Adjunct Lecturer on Global Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Madeline Drexler
Journalist and Visiting Scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Jennifer Leaning
Senior Research Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Esperanza Martinez
Head of COVID-19 Crisis Team, International Committee of the Red Cross

This conversation is presented in partnership with The Forum at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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