RIVM activities for Ukraine: donated medicines and focus on infectious diseases
Within just over a week, Bianca van den Hurk and her co-workers at RIVM arranged for a large supply of medicines to be transported to Ukraine. In another RIVM division, the Ukrainian Refugee Response Team designed measures to map out infectious disease risks and reduce them wherever possible.
Countless emails back and forth, 160 pallets of medicines, 3 double-length lorries, all kinds of documents and legal agreements. Bianca van den Hurk, product manager at the Department for Vaccine Supply and Prevention Programmes (RIVM-DVP), was extremely busy arranging it all.
During a crisis, a country in need can request European emergency assistance. In February 2022, Ukraine sent an overview of what the country needed, asking “who can help us with this?”. A request for help also reached RIVM via the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS). There was an urgent need for all sorts of medicines and vaccines, including strong painkillers, BCG vaccines against tuberculosis, and antibiotics.
“We had supplies that we could use for this purpose,” Van den Hurk says. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had purchased extra medicines and BCG vaccines on behalf of the Ministry, in case of shortages in the Netherlands. Since that fortunately did not happen, we were able to donate some of this inventory to Ukraine.”
These donations did not take away medicines that are needed in the Netherlands, Van den Hurk emphasises. It was unusual for RIVM to be able to make such donations. “We always adjust our purchases to what we need wherever possible, minimising wastage.”
Lorries filled with medicines to Ukraine
RIVM donated to Ukraine on two occasions. The first shipment was mainly strong painkillers, saline solution and antibiotics. The second donation involved BCG vaccines. Saline solution is used by hospitals, for example to administer fluids after a surgical procedure. BCG vaccines are against tuberculosis, a disease that is more common in Ukraine than in some other areas, including the Netherlands.
And that is how that three large lorries carrying medicines departed for Ukraine. “It is different from transporting blankets, for example,” says Bianca van den Hurk. “The temperature inside the lorry has to be monitored, since some medicines require refrigerated transport. The lorries drove to Poland, where the medicines were stored in a pharmaceutical warehouse.” From there, the goods are transported over time to the right locations, supplied to the people who need them.
Ukrainian Refugee Response Team
In the meantime, a Ukrainian Refugee Response Team was assembled. These efforts were coordinated by the National Coordination Centre for Communicable Disease Control (LCI), which is part of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control at RIVM.
The aim of the response team was to accurately assess the national and international situation in terms of infectious diseases among refugees. They mapped possible risks and looked at the measures needed to ensure infectious disease control. Mariska Hafkamp from RIVM is involved as a policy advisor. She explains: “Vaccination coverage in Ukraine is lower than in the Netherlands for diseases that are included in the National Immunisation Programme in this country. Due in partly to that lower vaccination coverage, infectious diseases that we hardly ever see in the Netherlands still sometimes occur in Ukraine.”
For that reason, existing sewage surveillance for polio has been expanded to facilitate early detection of potential poliovirus infections. Poliovirus can be detected in sewage even before people fall ill.
In addition, GPs, medical specialists and Municipal Public Health Services (GGDs) received information about infectious diseases that might occur among the refugees (such as measles and tuberculosis) and what measures can be taken.
Ukrainian refugees coming to the Netherlands are offered the same vaccinations as the Dutch population: all the vaccinations in the National Immunisation Programme, as well as the COVID-19 vaccinations. To make that possible, the relevant information is also available in Ukrainian on the RIVM website.
Easy, natural cooperation
Looking back on the emergency aid to provide medicines, Bianca van den Hurk feels that it was an exceptional experience. “I have always worked in disaster response roles. The emergency aid to Ukraine was truly exceptional. It was so urgent and you want to help very quickly. Truly exceptional, seeing that cooperation take shape with so many people from all kinds of organisations in such a short time. It was easy and natural. We all had the same goal: helping people in Ukraine.”