GENEVA – New data by two leading U.N. agencies find the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routine life-saving immunization services for millions of children, many of whom risk dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.
The World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund report 23 million children missed out last year on vaccines against killer diseases such as measles, polio, and diphtheria. They say global disruptions of immunization services caused by COVID-19 have set back progress in childhood vaccinations by a decade.
They report children in the Southeastern Asian and eastern Mediterranean regions were most affected. India topped a list of 10 countries with the greatest increase in children who did not receive a first dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis combined vaccine. The nine following countries are in the Americas and African regions.
Director of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals Department at WHO Kate O’Brien said new waves of COVID-19 and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines must not derail routine immunization. She noted vaccines are the most powerful tools available to safeguard public health.
“The world has rightly prioritized the emergency response to COVID-19,” she said. “But if we fail to find a catch-up, and catch up those who have missed their vaccines, and restore and improve the essential immunization program, there is a serious risk of disease outbreaks that will continue to grow. We really cannot trade one crisis for another.”
Principal adviser and chief of immunization at UNICEF, Ephrem Lemango, said immunizations in the first half of 2020 decreased significantly in many countries. This due to the closure of health facilities, pandemic lockdown measures and transportation disruptions.
“Later on, recovery interventions, such as the community mobilization activities and supply of protective equipment to health providers and conducting participatory activities, have actually enabled some regions such as the Middle Eastern, Northern Africa region, as well, to really improve its coverage,” Lemango said.
He adds the African region also saw a significant improvement in coverage.
WHO, UNICEF and partners are helping countries and regions in their efforts to recover from the pandemic and strengthen immunization systems.
The agencies aim to achieve 90% coverage for essential childhood vaccines by 2030. If this U.N.-designated goal is fully implemented, they say the deaths of an estimated 51 million future children could be averted.