As countries around the world continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 117 million children risk missing out on measles vaccines, two UN agencies warned in Geneva on Tuesday.
Noting that measles immunization campaigns have been delayed in 24 countries and will be cancelled in 13 others, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) joined other health partners in a statement supporting the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI) – a global partnership, founded by both agencies along with the American Red Cross, the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and the UN Foundation.
Cautioning that millions of children across 37 countries may miss out, the statement recalled WHO’s new guidelines to help countries sustain immunization activities during the pandemic while weighing the risks of delaying vaccination campaigns against that of coronavirus transmissions.
“If the difficult choice to pause vaccination is made due to the spread of COVID-19, we urge leaders to intensify efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations can be provided with measles vaccines as soon as it becomes possible to do so”, the statement said.
While acknowledging the many demands on health systems and frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agencies maintained that “delivering all immunization services, including measles vaccines, is essential to saving lives that would otherwise be lost to vaccine preventable diseases”.
And they stressed that protecting communities and health workers where coronavirus risks are high “should not mean that children permanently miss out”.
Despite having a safe, effective vaccine for over 50 years, in 2018, a measles surge claimed more than 140,000 lives – mostly children and babies.
Meanwhile COVID-19 has kept infants from routine immunization services.
According to the statement, children younger than 12 months of age are more likely to die from measles complications, and if the circulation of measles is not restricted, their risk of exposure will increase daily.
The M&RI saluted “the heroism of health and emergency workers across the globe” and recognized their “vital role…in delivering clear, trusted information, as well as preventive and supportive care within their communities”.
Flagging health workers as “the first line of defense against global epidemics”, the agencies underscored the need to invest in them and their protection.
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The institutions also recognized the role of parents and caregivers in ensuring that their children are vaccinated by following physical distancing recommendations in line with national guidance.
In closing, the statement called on countries and local leaders to “implement effective communication strategies to engage communities, ensure supply and demand for vaccination remains strong, and help assure a healthy life for every child especially in this challenging time”.
With the goal of a measles-free world, M&RI was founded in 2001 and has helped to vaccinate over 2.9 billion children and save over 21 million lives by increasing vaccination coverage, improving disease response, monitoring and evaluation, and building public confidence and demand for immunization.
The Initiative works closely with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to achieve these goals.