Shortfalls in global routine vaccination efforts due to the Covid-19 pandemic move international agencies to raise concerns about the growing risk of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses.
An estimated 23 million children missed out on basic vaccines through routine immunization services last year, a figure representing 3.7 million more than in 2019, say the UN Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization.
Many of these children – up to 17 million – likely did not receive any vaccine throughout the year, resulting in the exacerbation of already present inequalities in access to vaccines. More so, a significant number of the children live in areas affected by conflict, in under-served remote communities or in places where there is limited access to basic health and social services.
According to the latest data published by the international organizations on Thursday, these concerning statistics are largely due to global service disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Immunization services in many areas experienced disruptions in 2020, WHO and UNICEF said, with the Southeast Asian and Eastern Mediterranean Regions most affected. Moreover, as access to health services and immunization outreach were hampered due to the pandemic, the numbers of children not receiving even their first vaccinations increased globally.
In fact, when compared to 2019, 3.5 million more children missed their first dose of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine (DTP-1), while 3 million more children missed their first measles dose, the report notes.
“Even as countries clamour to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines, we have gone backwards on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“Multiple disease outbreaks would be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling COVID-19, making it more urgent than ever to invest in childhood vaccination and ensure every child is reached,” he added.
Urgent action needed
In the face of the situation, UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, stresses that the evidence should be a clear warning as “the Covid-19 pandemic and related disruptions have cost us valuable ground we cannot afford to lose, and the consequences will be paid in the lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable.”
Fore further notes that there were already worrying signs before the pandemic that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight to immunize children against preventable illnesses, including with the measles outbreak two years ago.
“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. With the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must remember that vaccine distribution has always been inequitable, but it does not have to be,” she urged.
Risk of the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases
With global attention and significant resources diverted to the fight against Covid-19, the international organizations lament that disruptions to immunization service provision have meant that clinics have been closed or hours reduced in some countries, while many are reluctant to seek healthcare for fear of contracting Covid-19 and the transportation challenges due to lockdown measures.
In this regard, Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance expressed concern that the alarming numbers suggest that “the pandemic is unravelling years of progress in routine immunization and exposing millions of children to deadly, preventable diseases.”
“This is a wake-up call”, he stressed. “We cannot allow a legacy of COVID-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers.”
“We all need to work together to help countries both defeat COVID-19, by ensuring global, equitable access to vaccines, and get routine immunization programmes back on track. The future health and wellbeing of millions of children and their communities across the globe depend on it,” Dr. Berkley said.
Agencies call for joint efforts
To combat the situation and work to recover lost ground due to Covid-19 disruptions, UNICEF, WHO and its partners recommend the restoration of vaccine campaigns and services so that countries can safely deliver routine immunization during the pandemic. To achieve this, they urge that health workers and community leaders actively communicate the importance of vaccinations.
The agencies also call for rectifying the gaps in immunization coverage, including identifying overlooked communities during the pandemic and implementing country plans to prevent the outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases as part of Covid-19 recovery efforts.
By Vatican News staff writer