Some 80 Million Infants At Risk Of Infectious Disease Due To Coronavirus-Disrupted Vaccination Campaigns
Child receives vaccine

Due to COVID-19, polio and measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries, and polio vaccination campaigns have been put on hold in 38 countries,  UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore has warned. 

Some 80 million infants in at least 68 countries are likely to be affected by the suspension of routine immunization services, said Fore in a joint press conference with warned UNICEF along with the World Health Organization, GAVI – The Vaccine Alliance, and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, on Friday. 

Vaccination campaigns (which seek to vaccinate large parts of the population in a short period of time) have also been badly hit, especially for measles and polio: Measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries and polio vaccination campaigns put on hold in 38 countries.

“We fear that COVID-19 is a health crisis that is quickly turning into a child-rights crisis” Fore said in a press statement. We cannot let our fight against one disease come at the expense of long-term progress in our fight against other diseases,” she added. “We have effective vaccines against measles, polio and cholera. While circumstances may require us to temporarily pause some immunization efforts, these immunizations must restart as soon as possible, or we risk exchanging one deadly outbreak for another.”

The reasons for disrupted immunization services range from stay-at-home orders, redeployment of health workers for COVID-19, lack of personal protective equipment – but also delays in air travel to ship vaccines.

Pandemic threatens to Unravel Vaccine Progress

“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health. Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking at the press event. 

“This pandemic is threatening to unravel this progress, risking the resurgence of other diseases”, said Seth Berkley, chief executive officer of GAVI. These include illnesses more likely to affect children such as measles and polio – but also diseases that can attack people of all ages including cholera, meningitis, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever, he said.  

More children all over the globe are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history. Basic vaccine coverage in the world’s poorest countries has risen from 59% in 2002 to 81% today, helping reduce vaccine preventable diseases by 70% during that time period, said Berkley.

Even so, before the COVID-19 pandemic, measles, polio and other vaccines were out of reach for 20 million children below the age of one every year.

A 6-month-old baby receives a delayed vaccine shot at a community health centre in Beijing, China.
‘People Reluctant to Come for Immunization Services’

Many countries have temporarily and justifiably suspended preventive mass vaccination campaigns against diseases like cholera, measles, meningitis, polio, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever, due to risk of transmission and the need to maintain physical distancing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Added one WHO official, “People are reluctant to come for immunization services, out of concern for themselves, and out of concern of course for the healthcare workers.”  

However, in the long-run, vaccinations will save more lives.

“Not only will maintaining immunization programmes prevent more outbreaks, it will also ensure we have the infrastructure we need to roll out an eventual COVID-19 vaccine on a global scale,” added Berkley.

“We need joint concerted efforts to put vaccinations back on track,” Fore added, “and there are many ways we can do that.

“First  countries need to intensify their efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations are vaccinated, as soon as it becomes possible to do so. Second, we eed to address the gaps in vaccine delivery. Third, we need to look for innovative solutions to keep vaccines going. Fourth, vaccines, need to be affordable and accessible to those who need them the most.” 

Despite Lockdowns and Flight Restrictions – Some Countries Offer Creative Examples For Continuing Vaccines

A UNICEF statement from early May cited a 70-80 percent reduction in planned vaccine shipments, leading to a “massive backlog”, as a result of the cancellation of commercial flights and the “exhorbitant cost” of securing cargo space.

However, despite lockdowns and stay-at-home measures, some countries, such as Uganda and Lao PDR, have found creative ways to maintain routine immunization, Fore said.  This includes carrying out vaccines in pharmacies, cars or supermarkets, while incorporating physical distancing in delivery.

She noted that in March, “Lao scheduled a rollout for HPV vaccine [which has] reached more than 70% of the population…. Uganda is ensuring that immunization services continue along with other essential health services, even funding transportation to ensure outreach activities.”  

WHO is due to issue new advice to countries on maintaining essential services during the pandemic, including recommendations on how to provide immunizations safely.

In early June, the United Kingdom government will host the Global Vaccine Summit, which aims to raise “at least” US$ 7.4 billion for Gavi to protect 300 million children in 68 lower-income countries against deadly diseases from 2021-25.  

Substantial pledges have already been received from the UK, the US, Norway, Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia Spain  – But more is needed to reach the target, added Berkley.

“It is vital that GAVI receives the resources we need to continue our work over the next five years,” he said. 

He added that GAVI would also likely be a major conduit for any future COVID-19 vaccine as well – which will be the only real way to build herd immunity and get rid of reservoirs of infection. 

Image Credits: EPA/Francis R. Malasig, UNICEF/Zhang Yuwei.