Strategies for boosting vaccination uptake among Ukrainian migrants in Poland – An interview with Prof. Serhij Nyankowsky

Dr. Serhij Nyankowsky
An interview with Professor Serhij Nyankowsky, a Ukrainian paediatrician and visiting professor at Uniwersytet Zielonogorski (UZ). The university is RIVER-EU’s lead partner in Poland contributing to project work on collection of evidence and implementation of interventions to improve HPV and MMR vaccination uptake in Ukrainian community in Poland.

This insightful written interview explores health system barriers faced by Ukrainian migrants in Poland. Amidst numerous challenges, Prof. Nyankowsky unveils promising interventions that help improve equitable access to healthcare. Through targeted educational campaigns and the engagement of Ukrainian doctors working in the Polish health system, there lies a pathway to empowerment and ensuring that migrants take informed decisions concerning their health.

RIVER-EU: What are the main health system barriers that you have identified so far within the Ukrainian community in Poland?

Prof. Nyankowsky: “There are no fundamental barriers to the healthcare system for migrants and refugees from Ukraine in Poland and the Polish medical system is similar in principle to the Ukrainian one. However, problems arise due to coming to another country with no preparation.

For many Ukrainians there is a certain language barrier. They are not always able to fully communicate with the Polish medical staff. Often, they do not understand where they need to go to get enough information about health care. Quite often they do not have documents confirming that they have certain chronic diseases, their children may not have such documents as well. Therefore, they often look for doctors who came from Ukraine and are now working in Poland. This makes it easier for them to communicate and gives them more confidence in the recommendations that these doctors give them.

A certain problem is rather long waiting for specialised doctor consultations or certain laboratory tests. In Ukraine, this waiting time is much shorter. In addition, like in Poland, there are many private medical institutions where you can do it quickly by paying a certain amount of money. In the network of private laboratories in Ukraine, anyone can do the necessary tests and examinations, even without a medical referral in 1-3 days.

Adaptation centres, which have now been established in some regions of Poland, allow solving these issues quite effectively. It seems to me that the informational aspect of working with migrants and refugees from Ukraine is important.”

Serhij Nyankowsky

RIVER-EU: What are the main interventions you have identified so far to increase child and adolescent vaccine uptake within the Ukrainian migrants in Poland?

Prof. Nyankowsky: “In order to increase the use of vaccines by children and adolescents within Ukrainian migrants, Poland needs to continue the information and education campaign both among the parents of Ukrainian children and among the doctors who work with them. RIVER-EU performs just such a function. 

Working with children alone has practically no prospects, it is difficult for them to understand the need for vaccinations, they have a fear of injections. It is important to inform parents that vaccinations in Poland are of good quality, the same as those used for vaccination of Polish children and children in other European countries, explain that in Poland, doctors carefully monitor the condition of children after vaccinations, do not hide away information if any adverse reactions appear.  Also, we should remind parents that most vaccinations are mandatory and free of charge for their children.

Parents rely on their attending physician, with whom they maintain regular contact, as the ultimate authority in this matter. The most credible source of information is the doctor who, like them, also came from Ukraine and received permission to practice medicine. If a person without a medical education works with them, it will cause mistrust and will be regarded as an advertisement for vaccinations.

In addition, it seems promising to provide information on social networks in which most Ukrainians are active. Such groups in Viber are popular. For example, in the group “Ukrainians in Poland” as of April 2023, there are about two hundred thousand participants (199,829 people); in the group “Ukrainians in Rzeszow” – one and a half thousand people, in the group “Ukrainians in Lublin” – more than 2 thousand (2209 people).”

RIVER-EU: What of these interventions have not been implemented to date (March 2023)?

A meeting was held with family doctors in Rzeszow, to which 8 doctors who work with families of Ukrainian migrants and refugees were invited. The next day, parents were invited who have children of a certain age. But most mothers declined the invitation, due to lack of time or interest. It should be noted that all the invited doctors willingly came to the organised meeting and shared their thoughts on the peculiarities of working with families from Ukraine and ways to improve the vaccination of children from Ukraine.

RIVER-EU: What was the most memorable experience from the interactions with the beneficiaries of the RIVER-EU project?

Prof. Nyankowsky: “For me, the most memorable experience was the organisation of a meeting with doctors who work with Ukrainian refugees in Rzeszow and the leaders of the Жешув Medical Center «Medik». This center officially employs doctors who came from Ukraine and who work with Ukrainian families living in Rzeszow. I really liked these doctors’ motivation to take part in this programme.”

RIVER-EU: What is the key message that you would like to highlight from your work in Poland?

Prof. Nyankowsky: “Ukrainian migrants are not much different from Polish citizens. But they need additional information regarding the specifics of the organisation of medical care in Poland. It is important for them to receive information about vaccinations in Poland from people they trust. Family doctors who work with Ukrainians can be the key in this matter.”

RIVER-EU: How do you feel working on this project?

Prof. Nyankowsky: “It is interesting for me to observe the actions of my Polish colleagues, I am pleased with their desire to help migrants and refugees from Ukraine to adapt in Poland. It is valuable for me to be able to help my compatriots who were forced to leave their country, to prevent the risk of developing diseases in children in the future. I want to thank my Polish colleagues, researchers, who accepted me into this project. I hope that I can be of some help in their work.”