WHO Says Seafarers Should Receive Priority for COVID-19 Vaccinations

seafarer priority for COVID-19 vaccination WHO IMO
WHO guidance includes seafarers as a priority group for vaccinations (IMO)

Published Jul 22, 2021 1:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

The World Health Organization named seafarers as one of the groups of transportation workers that should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination in its recently updated guidance on the procedures and process for administering vaccine supplies in areas where supply is limited. The recognition of the important role seafarers play in the global economy came as the WHO also warned that COVID-19 vaccine supply inequity could have a lasting and profound impact on socio-economic recovery in low- and lower-middle income countries 

International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Kitack Lim welcomed the WHO’s decision, calling it the global recognition of a critical issue the IMO has been seeking to address. One of the biggest concerns has been the unevenness of the availability of the vaccine. Some countries and private organizations have been providing vaccinations for seafarers in countries such as the United States, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and Cyprus. India, for example, also agreed with the maritime union to include seafarers heading out to assignments as a priority group, but especially in other developing countries, short supply of the vaccine has made it difficult for seafarers who by the nature of their work generally need the single-dose regiment.

"I am glad to see that the WHO recognizes the importance of vaccinating seafarers on cargo ships. These individuals are responsible for transporting over 80 percent of all goods around the world, including food, medicine, and vaccine supplies – and have continued to do so despite extremely challenging circumstances,” said Secretary-General Lim. “Seafarers will play a key role in the global recovery, and barriers to international travel and crew change must be removed."

At the end of last week, the WHO released the updated guidance for Stage II of its vaccine roadmap seeking to provide a framework for overall program priorities as well as vaccine-specific recommendations. 

The WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) included among the priority groups, "Seafarers and air crews who work on vessels that carry goods and no passengers, with special attention to seafarers who are stranded at sea and prevented from crossing international borders for crew change due to travel restrictions."

The IMO has made repeated calls for vaccinations for seafarers, including issuing a joint statement this year with other UN organizations. It also adopted a resolution that encouraged priority vaccination for seafarers in national COVID-19 vaccination programs and has been part of the repeated calls by many groups to designate seafarers as key workers.

The WHO said that urgent action is required to boost supply and assure equitable access for every country. At a time when richer countries have paid trillions in stimulus to prop up flagging economies, the WHO said now is the moment to ensure vaccine doses are shared quickly, all barriers to increasing vaccine manufacturing are removed, and financing support is secured so vaccines are distributed equitably and a truly global economic recovery can take place.