There has been an “alarming decline” in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines around the world, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned on Wednesday.
The latest data from a survey conducted by the two UN agencies and the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) showed that in 2019, nearly 14 million children missed out on essential vaccinations to deal with preventable diseases such as measles and 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 immunisation coverage within and across countries,” the WHO and UNICEF said.
Most of these children live in Africa and are likely to lack access to other health services, according to the data, with two-thirds of them concentrated in 10 middle- and low-income countries, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria.
“Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools in the history of public health, and more children are now being immunised than ever before,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“But the pandemic has put those gains at risk.
“The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunisations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Vaccines can be delivered safely even during the pandemic, and we are calling on countries to ensure these essential life-saving programmes continue,” he added.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 30 measles vaccination campaigns were or are at risk of being cancelled, which could result in further outbreaks in 2020 and beyond, according to the survey, which was conducted in collaboration with the US Centres for Disease Control, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Three quarters of the 82 countries that responded reported COVID-19 related disruptions in their immunisation programmes as of May 2020.
There were various reasons for the disrupted services even when they were offered, the survey said.
It cited people being either unable to access such services because of reluctance to leave home, transport interruptions, economic hardships, restrictions on movement, or fear of being exposed to people with COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has made previously routine vaccination a daunting challenge,” said the UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore.
“We must prevent a further deterioration in vaccine coverage and urgently resume vaccination programmes before children’s lives are threatened by other diseases.
“We cannot trade one health crisis for another.”
Every year, UNICEF and the WHO produce a new round of immunisation coverage estimates for 195 countries to assess how well they are doing in reaching every child with life-saving vaccines.
The WHO and UNICEF said they were helping countries to restore routine immunisation services during disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They urged global health authorities to abide by WHO recommendations calling for a strict hygiene regime, social distancing and provision of personal protective equipment to health workers.