A UN-led global immunization strategy was unveiled on Monday to reach more than 50 million children who have missed lifesaving jabs against diseases such as measles, yellow fever and diptheria, in large part because of COVID-19 disruption.
“Even before the pandemic, there were worrying signs that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight against preventable child illness, with 20 million children already missing out on critical vaccinations”, said Henrietta Fore, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director.
According to UNICEF, disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020 meant that vaccine deliveries fell from 2.29 billion in 2019, to just over two billion vaccine doses last year.
“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, causing millions more children to go unimmunized”, Ms. Fore maintained. “Now that vaccines are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must sustain this energy to help every child catch up on their measles, polio and other vaccines. We have no time to waste. Lost ground means lost lives.”
Echoing that message, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus along with partner GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, urged universal access to immunization and far greater investment in primary health care to support mass jab drives.
“Vaccines will help us end the COVID-19 pandemic but only if we ensure fair access for all countries, and build strong systems to deliver them”, he said.
According to the UN health agency, immunization services have started to recover from the disruption caused by COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.
But a WHO survey indicated that more than one-third of respondent countries still report problems delivering routine jabs.
228 million at risk
Today, 60 lifesaving mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed in 50 countries, putting around 228 million people - mostly children - at risk for diseases such as measles, yellow fever and polio, WHO warned.
More than half of the 50 affected countries are in Africa, while measles campaigns have seen most disruption, accounting for 23 postponed vaccination drives, affecting an estimated 140 million people.
“Many of these (measles) campaigns have been delayed for over a year”, WHO noted, warning that failure to protect against this highly contagious disease risks large outbreaks wherever people are unvaccinated.
Serious measles outbreaks have already been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and Yemen as a result of gaps in vaccination coverage, WHO said, at the start of World Immunization Week 2021.
These outbreaks are happening in places already grappling with conflict situations as well as service disruptions due to ongoing response measures to COVID-19.
The world has vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, helping people of all ages live longer, healthier lives – as is their right - according to the Immunization Agenda 2030 strategy to support recovery from COVID-19 disruptions.
“Strong immunization systems will be needed to ensure that people everywhere are protected against COVID-19 and other diseases” over the next decade, the campaign’s website explained, underscoring the savings and economic returns made by investing in vaccination programmes for individuals, communities and countries.
“Ensuring everyone receives the vaccines they need will provide exceptional return on investment and help keep the world safe from future pandemics.”
Finding the ‘zero-dose’ children
“Millions of children across the world are likely to miss out on basic vaccines as the current pandemic threatens to unravel two decades of progress in routine immunization”, said Dr Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
To support the recovery from COVID-19 and “to fight future pandemics”, Dr Berkley called for routine immunization to be prioritized – and “to focus on reaching children who do not receive any routine vaccines, or ‘zero-dose’ children”.
If fully implemented, it will avert an estimated 50 million deaths, according to WHO – 75 per cent of them in low and lower-middle income countries.