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Vaccine Disparity Hits Home For Many Foreign-Born Doctors


Health care workers were among the first to be vaccinated in this country, but that experience of getting vaccinated is not the same for some foreign-born doctors. They describe a bittersweet feeling as they worry about family and friends back home who are still awaiting their shots. Side Effects Public Media's Farah Yousry reports.

FARAH YOUSRY, BYLINE: Almost 1 out of every 3 doctors in the U.S. is foreign-born. Many come from middle- and low-income countries that have little or no access to the vaccines yet. Dr. Wassim Abdallah is a resident physician of internal medicine at Indiana University in Indianapolis. He's from Lebanon, and as a frontline health care provider, he got a Pfizer vaccine back in December.

WASSIM ABDALLAH: I feel lucky I was able to get the vaccine. And I'm a, you know, immigrant doctor getting the vaccine even before the president of the United States.

YOUSRY: But he worries about his family in Lebanon, like his 102-year-old grandfather who's yet to get vaccinated.

ABDALLAH: Let me see.


YOUSRY: From his office at the hospital, he's making a video call to his father.



YOUSRY: In Arabic, his father tells him that the TV newscast says Lebanon is receiving Pfizer vaccine doses.


ABDALLAH: (Speaking Arabic).


YOUSRY: These doses, when rolled out, are enough to vaccinate only a sixth of the country's population. And that's not just the case in Lebanon. The United Nations says residents of just 10 countries have access to over 75% of the world's available vaccines, while those in 130 countries remain without a single dose. This global vaccine disparity hits home for many foreign-born doctors.

SAMUEL URRUTIA: How unfair it is for some people to be seeing 60 or 80 patients a day in a country like Honduras and not be able to access the vaccine.

YOUSRY: That's Dr. Samuel Urrutia, an internal medicine resident at Indiana University. His father is a general practitioner in a rural Honduran village.

URRUTIA: Yeah. My dad is 57 years old. He is about to retire later this year, actually, but he's still working through the pandemic because they thought they needed him. And he has not received the vaccine. There's no plan for mass vaccination in Honduras or even for high-risk population vaccination.

YOUSRY: For countries like Honduras, vaccines are the most efficient way to control the pandemic. Social distancing is more difficult in places where many workers do manual jobs for daily wages. Jennifer Nuzzo at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security says the shortage of doses in these countries could defeat vaccine efficacy.

JENNIFER NUZZO: As this virus continues to circulate worldwide, there is, of course, the worry that genetic mutations will occur and that some of these mutations could conceivably create a virus that is able to defeat the vaccine. And so it really is in our best interest to try to help other countries bring their epidemics under control.

YOUSRY: Sitting in his hospital's lab, pathology resident Dr. Ahmad Alkashash says while he feels lucky to be vaccinated, he also feels guilty because COVID deaths are piling up back home in Egypt.

AHMAD ALKASHASH: Every day I look on my Facebook account. Every day I see someone who's lost. That's every day, someone I know - I knew personally.

YOUSRY: At this rate, researchers at Duke University and others predict that some developing countries may have to wait until 2024 before all their citizens are vaccinated.

For NPR News, I'm Farah Yousry.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farah Yousry