Measles concerns may delay Afghan resettlement by weeks

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending Afghan evacuees housed at U.S. military bases overseas be tested and vaccinated for measles — a process that could delay efforts to resettle as many as 12,000 by several weeks, according to three senior administration officials.

The Biden administration announced Sept. 10 that it would halt flights for Afghan evacuees at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar after four individuals tested positive following their arrival in the U.S. last week.

The CDC is carrying out contact tracing of those individuals in an attempt to detect if any other Afghan evacuees may also have contracted the virus. Military and U.S. government medical personnel are already helping screen evacuees and will help with vaccinations at the bases, one of the sources said. The U.S. is also testing Afghan evacuees domestically and quarantined the four individuals who already tested positive.

The senior administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations about the evacuation process. The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Pentagon did not comment. The National Security Council referred POLITICO to comments made by White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that the administration will pause flights for “at least seven additional days.” But the senior administration officials who spoke to POLITICO said they are preparing for the flights to be halted for longer, pointing to the time it would take to vaccinate thousands of individuals and for the immunity to develop.

“All arriving Afghans are currently required to be vaccinated for measles as a condition of their humanitarian parole and critical immunizations,” Jean-Pierre said Monday.

Measles is extremely contagious, according to CDC data. About 90 percent of individuals who are not vaccinated will contract the virus. Afghanistan’s vaccination rates are notoriously low.

Although senior health officials are concerned about the potential for more individuals testing positive, there are currently no reported cases at the Ramstein base, a senior administration official with direct knowledge of the matter said. It is unclear if there are any additional cases in Qatar, that person said.

According to the World Health Organization, a measles outbreak is defined as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases that are “temporally related” or with dates of a rash occurrence beginning seven to 23 days apart. An outbreak is considered over when there are no linked cases for 46 days from the onset of the last case.

The delay would extend the amount of time evacuees would need to stay at U.S. military bases, where crowded conditions are getting worse by the week, according to two other individuals helping with the U.S. evacuation response overseas.

The U.S. is also screening Afghan evacuees for Covid-19 in both its domestic and international bases. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also set up a mass vaccination site for refugees at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.

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