Millions more children at risk with immunization services disrupted amid COVID-19 pandemic
Last year, over 13 million children received no vaccines at all, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is calling on governments to step up, warning disrupting immunization services amid the COVID-19 pandemic could leave even more of the world’s most marginalized children without access to life-saving vaccines.
Making its call at the start of the 2020 edition of World Immunization Week, UNICEF said on Saturday that millions of children are in danger of missing life-saving vaccines against measles, diphtheria and polio due to disruptions in immunization service as the world rushes to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, measles, polio and other vaccines were out of reach for 20 million children below the age of one every year. Given the current disruptions, UNICEF warned that this could create pathways to disastrous outbreaks in 2020 and well beyond.
“The stakes have never been higher. As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, our life-saving work to provide children with vaccines is critical,” said Robin Nandy, UNICEF Principal Adviser and Chief of Immunization.
With disruptions in immunization services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he stressed that the fates of millions of young lives “hang in the balance.”
UNICEF estimates that 182 million children missed out on the first dose of the measles vaccine between 2010 and 2018, or 20.3 million children a year on average. This is because the global coverage of the first dose of measles stands only at 86 per cent, well below the 95 per cent needed to prevent measles outbreaks.
Widening pockets of unvaccinated children led to alarming measles outbreaks in 2019, including in high-income countries like the US, UK and France. Meanwhile, among low-income countries, the gaps in measles coverage before COVID-19 were already alarming.
Beyond measles, the immunization gaps were already quite dire, according to new regional profiles developed by UNICEF.
Sustain immunization services, keep communities safe, urges UNICEF
UNICEF is sending critical vaccine supplies to immunize children, where possible, in areas with outbreaks and to replenish their routine supplies.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, UNICEF is supporting the Government with vaccine supplies and protective equipment to continue immunization activities in North Kivu province, where over 3,000 cases of measles were reported since January 1.
As the world races to develop and test a new COVID-19 vaccine, UNICEF and partners in the Measles & Rubella Initiative and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are calling on governments and donors to:
- Sustain immunization services while keeping health workers and communities safe;
- Start planning to ramp up vaccinations for every missed child when the pandemic ends;
- Fully replenish Gavi, as the alliance supports immunization programmes in the future; and
- Ensure that when the COVID-19 vaccine is available, it reaches those most in need.
“Children missing out now on vaccines must not go their whole lives without protection from disease,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The legacy of COVID-19 must not include the global resurgence of other killers like measles and polio.”