MSF offers consultations in a mobile clinic every Tuesday near the Porte de la Chapelle | Photo: Mehdi Chebil
MSF offers consultations in a mobile clinic every Tuesday near the Porte de la Chapelle | Photo: Mehdi Chebil

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) aims to get between 6,000 to 10,000 people vaccinated before the end of September. This week, the NGO launched a vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in the Île-de-France region for the homeless and migrants.

On June 8, MSF launched a large COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the Paris region. In the first three days of the campaign, 137 people received their first vaccination. Thanks to their mobile clinics, the teams were able to set up points at Restos du Cœur distribution sites, at a Salvation Army site, and at the Porte de la Villette.

Demand for vaccines is already exceeding all expectations. "Normally, we should be coordinated by the ARS, which asks us to focus on migrant workers' hostels and people on the street. But in fact, operators of emergency shelters and associations are also calling us," explains Corinne Torre, head of the French mission for the NGO.

Appointments have already been made to vaccinate 250 women housed by ADSF (Agir pour la santé des femmes), and another 90 residents at a migrant workers' hostel in the Yvelines.

Also read: Bosnia: COVID-19 infections rising in migrant camps

For the time being, two teams are sharing the tasks. One is in charge at fixed locations, the other is organizing outings according to the associations' alerts. A third team is being set up -- MSF is still looking for a doctor -- to reinforce these occasional outings.

"Associations such as Médecins du Monde and Utopia 56, which are out on patrol, direct us to places where people live and help us to identify informal settlements," explains Torre.

The goal is to vaccinate at least 6,000 people by the end of the campaign in September. "It's a race against time, because summer is coming. There is a risk that there will be more and more newcomers, and fewer and fewer operators available to work in the field," says Torre.

Also read: MSF study: Migrants and the poor showing higher coronavirus infection rates in Paris

Gaining trust

Before taking the plunge, MSF conducted a thorough two-week awareness campaign. "We were surprised to discover people are very willing to be vaccinated, whereas I thought it would be more complicated," reports Torre.

The NGO says that migrants' mistrust is mostly directed towards the public authorities and less towards an organization that they are already familiar with. "The bet was that with MSF, the public would be less recalcitrant. Many of them already know us because we work in their country of origin," explains Torre. "We also insist on our neutrality in relation to the administration", and they do not engage in the collection of sensitive data.

This question of trust is particularly relevant in migrant workers' hostels, where many residents are undocumented. These facilities were part of the first official wave of vaccinations, along with centers such as nursing homes, given the age of the residents. "But the health authorities' campaign did not work," says Corinne Torre. "We don't just walk into the homes. The public is hesitant and wary, there is a fear of the administration, it is necessary to take the time to discuss with the residents' representatives." Faced with these failures, the authorities finally entrusted this mission to MSF.

The NGO's education campaign will continue until the end of August, with teams of mediators who speak several languages and can be accompanied by interpreters if necessary. The same goes for the caregivers at the time of vaccination. For non-French-speaking migrants, "it is absolutely necessary that they understand our questions, that we manage to discuss and establish a diagnosis without danger," insists Torre.

Also read: Foreign-born people have twice the excess mortality than French nationals

Increased vulnerability

A final difficulty arises: the follow-up of the public to proceed with the second injection. This is not easy when people move from one shelter to another, or when they fall off the radar of associations and social workers.

The NGO has the Pfizer vaccine (which requires two doses) and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine (Janssen) -- but the latter is only administered to people over 55. "Even if we lose people, the health authorities agree that it is still important to receive a first injection," reassures Torre.

Alongside this campaign, the NGO is continuing to test for the virus in its mobile clinics. It also had a drop-in center in Asnières-sur-Seine (Hauts-de-Seine), but this one has just been closed, at the end of May, by the DRIHL (Regional and Interdepartmental Directorate of Housing).

People who are positive with COVID-19 will now be directed to a center run by the Aurore association in the 20th arrondissement. "I do have a small concern about the number of places that are available: hopefully the center will not find itself in difficulty" concludes Torre.

>> The MSF mobile vaccination clinic is at Porte de la Villette on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the Restos du Cœur food distribution centre, also at Porte de la Villette, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


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