The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF on Wednesday warned of an “alarming decline” in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines around the world due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UN agencies called for immediate efforts to vaccinate children, as new data shows that vaccine coverage stalled at 85% for nearly a decade before the pandemic, with 14 million unvaccinated infants yearly.
“Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools in the history of public health and more children are now being immunized than ever before,” said WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“But the pandemic has put those gains at risk. The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself.”
Tedros said vaccines could be delivered safely even during the pandemic, and the WHO is urging countries to ensure these essential life-saving programs continue.
“COVID-19 has made previously routine vaccination a daunting challenge,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
That is due to disruptions in the delivery and uptake of immunization services caused by the pandemic, she added.
New data by WHO and UNICEF shows that these disruptions threaten to reverse hard-won progress to reach more children and adolescents with a broader range of vaccines, which has already been hampered by a decade of stalling coverage.
The latest vaccine coverage estimates show that improvements such as the expansion of the HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine to 106 countries and greater protection for children against more diseases are in danger of lapsing.
For example, preliminary data for the first four months of 2020 points to a substantial drop in the number of children completing three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP3).
This is the first time in 28 years that the world could see a reduction in DTP3 coverage – the marker for immunization coverage within and across countries.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 30 measles vaccination campaigns were at risk of being canceled, which could result in further outbreaks in 2020 and beyond.
A new survey was also recently conducted by UNICEF, WHO, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Sabin Vaccine Institute, and the US’ Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
It found that three-quarters of the 82 countries that responded reported COVID-19 related disruptions in their immunization programs as of May 2020.
A statement said that many health workers are unavailable because of restrictions on travel, redeployment to COVID-19 response duties, and a lack of protective equipment.
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