WHO-UN ring alarm bells, cite alarming decline in life-saving vaccinations during pandemic

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Pakistan riskiest place to be born, India safer, but not by much: Unicef

As the world waits with bated breath for COVID-19 vaccine to see light of the day, World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF have set the alarm bells ringing pointing to an alarming decline in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccinations during the ongoing coronavirus induced pandemic.

Releasing a detailed statement, WHO and UNICEF said that levels of life-saving childhood immunisations against dangerous diseases including Measles, Tetanus and Diphtheria have dropped alarmingly during the COVID-19 pandemic, putting millions of children at risk.

“The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunisations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the joint report.

The latest data on vaccine coverage estimates from WHO and UNICEF for 2019 shows that improvements such as the expansion of the HPV vaccine to 106 countries and greater protection for children against more diseases are in danger of lapsing.

Preliminary data for 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, WHO says, 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.

“Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools in the history of public health, and more children are now being immunized than ever before. 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. 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,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The decline in vaccination is due to disruptions in delivery and uptake of immunization services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Reasons for disrupted immunization services vary. Even when services are offered, people are either unable to access them because of reluctance to leave homes, transport interruptions, economic hardships, restrictions on movement, fear of being exposed to people with COVID-19. Further, many health workers are also unavailable for immunization service because of restrictions on travel or redeployment to COVID-19 response duties as well as a lack of protective equipment.

“COVID-19 has made previously routine vaccination a daunting challenge. We must prevent a further deterioration in vaccine coverage and urgently resume vaccination programs before children’s lives are threatened by other diseases. We cannot trade one health crisis for another,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.

As per the WHO-UNICEF statement, regional coverage for the third dose of DTP in South Asia had increased by 12 percentage points over last 10 years, notably across India, Nepal and Pakistan. “However, that hard-won progress could be undone by COVID-19 related disruptions. Countries that had recorded significant progress, such as Ethiopia and Pakistan, are now also at risk of backsliding if immunization services are not restored as soon as feasible,” the statement said.

WHO President Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The situation is especially concerning for Latin America and the Caribbean, where historically high coverage has slipped over the last decade. In Brazil, Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela, immunization coverage plummeted by at least 14 percentage points since 2010.

As per UNICEF, data collated by WHO, UNICEF, Gavi and Sabin Vaccine Institute showed that country-wise lockdown measures had substantially impacted delivery of immunization services in at least 68 countries, putting approximately 80 million children under the age of one year at increased risk of falling prey to vaccine-preventable diseases.

Can we afford to turn the clock back? Restoring services by adhering to hygiene and physical distancing recommendations and providing protective equipment to health workers, helping health workers communicate actively with caregivers to explain how services have been reconfigured to ensure safety, rectifying coverage and immunity gaps and expanding routine services to reach missed communities could help check the immunisation figures from plummeting further.

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