Published November 02, 2009
A Missouri congressman expressed outrage Monday over the distribution of H1N1 vaccines to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the most vulnerable Americans -- women and children -- are "no longer first."
"President Obama called this pandemic a 'national emergency,' but the federal government continues to fail at one of its most basic responsibilities. And now the administration tells us 'no longer women and children first;' instead accused terrorists will be first in line for H1N1 vaccines," said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a press release Monday.
Blunt noted that Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services has only 28 percent of the H1N1 vaccine that it needs.
"It's outrageous that in Missouri, expectant mothers, children and others vulnerable to the H1N1 virus do not have access to the vaccine, and our tax dollars are funding vaccines for accused terrorists detained at Gitmo," Blunt said.
Army Maj. James Crabtree, a spokesman for the U.S. jail facility in southeast Cuba, said Sunday that terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base will soon get H1N1 vaccines -- sparking outrage among those who argue Americans civilians should have priority.
Crabtree -- who said the doses should start arriving this month with guards and then inmates scheduled for inoculations -- acknowledged there may be an "emotional response" from critics who say terror suspects should not be allocated the vaccines while American citizens are still waiting due to a vaccine shortage.
But he said U.S. military officials are "responsible for the health and care of the detainee population."
Medical personnel at Guantanamo requested the doses, but Crabtree said he did not know how many.
Detainees will be vaccinated "entirely on a voluntary basis," he said. "There is always going to be a segment of the population that is going to refuse," either due to anxiety about a shot or to "distrust of our motivations."
Blunt, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, which has oversight over public health and pandemic preparedness, said, "If the Obama administration has enough vaccines for terrorists, then I suggest they send these doses to Missouri, where many vulnerable people are still at risk."
Others, like the top House Republican, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, have also lashed out at the Obama administration for allowing the distribution of H1N1 vaccines to Gitmo detainees. Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Boehner said he does not agree with the H1N1 vaccination plans for the terror suspects.
"I don't think it's a good idea. The administration probably didn't think it would be very popular either; that's why they announced it on Friday night," he said.
Health officials have recommended that people in high-risk groups receive the swine flu vaccination first. There has been heated debate in several U.S. states about where prisoners should fall in the pecking order of vaccine recipients.
A spokesman for Physicians For Human Rights, an international medical group, said there are "certain basic obligations the U.S. has to its prisoners," and that vaccinations for influenza fall into that category.
"The fact that many prisoners within the U.S. don't get timely access to basic health care doesn't change the obligation of the U.S. to prisoners at Guantanamo," Dr. Scott A. Allen of the rights group said in an e-mail from Rhode Island to The Associated Press. "We should work towards securing H1N1 vaccine for all at-risk populations, and not towards lowering a public health standard for certain unpopular groups."
Following Saturday's transfer of six Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo to the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, roughly 215 detainees remain at the detention center. The Obama administration plans to prosecute some in U.S. courts and turn over others to nations willing to rehabilitate or free them.
The administration also is grappling with how to keep in prison a handful of remaining detainees who are considered too dangerous to release or put on trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.