Pandemic hits non-Covid vaccines for children

Twenty-three million children worldwide missed out on basic vaccines through routine immunisation services in 2020, 3.7 million more than in 2019, due to Covid induced global service disruptions, a latest survey by the WHO and UNICEF has revealed.

Up to 17 million of these children likely did not receive a single vaccine during the year, widening already immense inequities in vaccine access. Most of these children live in communities affected by conflict and in under-served remote places with limited access to health facilities, food and hygiene.

“Even as countries clamour to get their hands on Covid-19 vaccines, we have gone backward on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

He adds: “Multiple disease outbreaks would be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling Covid-19, making it more urgent than ever to invest in childhood vaccination and ensure every child is reached.”

Disruptions in immunisation services were widespread in 2020, with the WHO Southeast Asian and Eastern Mediterranean Regions most affected. As compared with 2019, 3.5 million more children missed their first dose of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine (DTP-1) while 3 million more children missed their first measles dose. 

During the first wave in 2020, villages in Nepal’s Dhading and Gorkha districts suffered outbreaks of measles because families were unable to vaccinate their children either because the health post was closed due to the pandemic, parents were concerned about Covid-19 transmission, or the lockdown prevented travel to health posts. 

“This evidence should be a clear warning. The Covid-19 pandemic and related disruptions cost us valuable ground we cannot afford to lose and the consequences will be paid in the lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable,” says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. 

She adds: “The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. With the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must remember that vaccine distribution has always been inequitable, but it does not have to be.”

Even prior to the pandemic, global childhood vaccination rates against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles and polio had stalled for several years at around 86%. 

This rate is well below the 95% recommended by WHO to protect against measles, often the first disease to resurge when children are not reached with vaccines, and insufficient to stop other vaccine-preventable diseases. Just two years ago, there were widespread measles outbreaks.

“This is a wake-up call, we cannot allow a legacy of Covid-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers,” says Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “We all need to work together to help countries both defeat Covid-19, by ensuring global, equitable access to vaccines, and get routine immunisation programs back on track.” 

School closures due to the pandemic have also affected vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV), which protect girls against cervical cancer later in life. Globally only 13% of girls were vaccinated against HPV, falling from 15% in 2019, which means 1.6 million missed out on the shot in 2020.

Nepal government had introduced the HPV vaccine for all girls aged between 11-13 years as part of the regular immunisation program in 2019.

The WHO, UNICEF and Gavi are working together to restore services and vaccination campaigns by ensuring that Covid-19 vaccine delivery is independently planned for and financed and that it occurs alongside, and not at the cost of childhood vaccination services while also strengthening immunisation systems as part of pandemic recovery efforts.

The Global Immunisation Agenda 2030 aims to achieve 90% coverage for essential childhood vaccines, halve the number of entirely unvaccinated children, and increase the uptake of newer lifesaving vaccines such as rotavirus or pneumococcus in low and middle-income countries.