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US Sen. Sherrod Brown will advocate for funding to fight infectious diseases in Ukraine as the war continues

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is pledging to include specific funding for vaccinations, and other infectious disease prevention care for Ukraine, as part of the funding package he and other Senate Democrats are seeking. Brown says he has heard directly from Northeast Ohio's Ukrainian-American community that the need is great.

According to local health officials, the threat from a potential infectious disease outbreak in Ukraine is not just an international issue, but potentially a local one as well.

"Infection has no borders," said Dr. Taras Mahlay, an internist and board member of the Tremont-based Cleveland Maidan Association, a Ukrainian-American humanitarian organization.

"We can slow it down by shutting down the borders. But it's going to move. The best thing is not for it to happen in the first place. Vaccinations would be the best way of dampening any type of infection," Mahlay said.

The exterior of the Cleveland Maidan Association's headquarters.
Stephen Langel
Ideastream Public Media
The exterior of the Cleveland Maidan Association's headquarters.

Brown told Ideastream Public Media he recently held meetings with several groups, including Mahlay and the Cleveland Maidan Association, to discuss the need for additional federal funding. While the funding request will mostly be for military support in response to Russia's ongoing invasion, there will also be a specific set aside for aid to address public health risks.

"There will be substantial humanitarian aid," Brown said. "We will meet these needs and make sure that these humanitarian issues, especially child vaccinations, are met."

However, there are obstacles to such aid passing, including the opposition of Ohio's other Senator, Republican J.D. Vance who co-authored a Sept. 21 letter, along with 28 other Republican members of Congress opposing further aid to Ukraine. Efforts to reach Vance for comment on this issue were unsuccessful.

Vance recently told our Statehouse News Bureau he will continue to oppose further aid at least until the Biden administration provides additional details about how the previous funds are being spent, how effective the counteroffensive against Russia has been and other details about the end goals and timing for the funding.

“Right now, we are funding what is effectively an indeterminate war of unlimited ends, unlimited resources," Vance said. "We need to stop it and bring peace to the table."

The U.S. House of Representatives also presents a likely obstacle to both military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as not only does the House lack a Speaker after Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) was ousted from the position on Oct. 3, but many House Republicans have opposed Ukrainian funding, including Ohio Representatives Jim Jordan, who represents Ashland, Richland and Morrow counties.

But Brown believes the House will eventually support such funding.

"I know most members of the House, including most of the Ohio delegation. I talk to them often. They want to do this humanitarian aid and military aid to Ukraine," he said.

National public health experts, including Dr. William Pewen, have long advocated for specific set-asides for humanitarian aid. Funds are needed for childhood vaccinations, as well as diagnostics and therapeutics to prevent the outbreak of potentially deadly infectious diseases such as measles, tuberculosis and diphtheria and time is running out.

"In Ukraine, troops, civilians, humanitarian workers are losing life and limb for want of what should have been in place many months ago," he said. "Prevention suffers as well. Millions of children lacking immunization are at risk since the vaccines they need must be ordered many months in advance. A new Ukraine supplemental simply must prioritize medical needs."

Mahlay has also argued for medical supplies and equipmentand continues to work to get those overseas.

A Ukrainian flag with Cleveland written across the bottom hangs inside the Cleveland Maidan Association.
Stephen Langel
Ideastream Public Media
A Ukrainian flag inside the Cleveland Maidan Association.

Brown joined with seven other Senate Democrats from states with large Ukrainian-American populations in an Oct. 3 letter, urging Senate leadership to put forward and pass a funding package for Ukraine. Brown was joined by Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Pennsylvania Sens. Robert Casey, Jr. and John Fetterman, Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

"Our states are home to thousands of members of the Ukrainian diaspora," the letter stated. "We hear from them daily and they remind us of the importance of continuing our commitment to helping Ukrainians defend themselves and their homes. They have shared stories about their friends and family members who are living under constant threat of indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian targets. ... We write to request urgent action to advance critical and sustained security assistance and economic support for Ukraine," the letter stated. "Now is not the time to slow our aid to Ukraine. Russian forces continue to bomb civilian populations – targeting hospitals, schools, churches and apartment buildings."

Updated: October 10, 2023 at 12:28 PM EDT
This story was updated to include comments from Sen. J.D. Vance.
Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.