Seafarer Vaccination Numbers Improve, But Challenges Remain

Image courtesy IMO

Published Sep 21, 2021 11:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

The percentage of seafarers who have received a full course of a COVID-19 vaccine is improving, according to the latest numbers released by the Neptune Declaration's crew change tracker. As of September, about 22 percent of the world's 1.4 million seafarers have been vaccinated, up from 15 percent in August. The number varies regionally, but it represents a considerable overall improvement from early this year. 

Government-backed programs are ramping up, and the cause has won backing from the World Health Organization, but seafarers' welfare organizations can take a large share of the credit. According to the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA), more than 50,000 foreign seafarers have been vaccinated by its members and their union, industry and healtcare partners in American seaports. This number is in addition to thousands of others who received the shot from a commercial provider or from a cruise line employer in the United States.

Challenges remain, however. Some nations only offer two-dose vaccines, and this means that seafarers who receive the first dose have to look for a second of the same kind in another port of call - not easy for a tramping vessel. To make matters more difficult for seafarers and vessel operators, some nations do not recognize other nations' vaccines: as an example, India's Covaxin and Russia's Sputnik V formulas are not considered valid in the United States.
In addition, vaccination certification paperwork can be hard to obtain and use. In the UK, reports the Liverpool Seafarers Centre, seafarers cannot access official confirmation of vaccination because they are not registered with UK National Health Service (NHS). 

"All they have at the moment is the card that they’re given at the point of vaccination confirming administration of the vaccine, the manufacturer, the batch number and the date that it was given. These are handwritten – I could have picked up one of these cards anywhere and written it up myself," says LSC's John Wilson. “We need the IMO, ILO and WHO to produce a framework which will be uniform throughout the world.”

According to Wilson, distribution of vaccines would get easier if seafarers were simply required to get vaccinated, across the board. At present, the shipping companies and crewing agencies who supply workers to their vessels recommend that crew members be vaccinated, but not all of them officially require it. 

"The underlying message at the moment is that if you’re not vaccinated, you will not be employed, but they haven’t made it mandatory. However I believe it is going to become mandatory from a continuation of employment point of view," said Wilson. "If you have been vaccinated, the likelihood of serious illness or death is limited."