Immunisation disruptions pose risk to kids
The deadly coronavirus has been wreaking havoc globally, challenging lives and livelihoods, and the latest huge threat also comes in the form of the pandemic halting vaccination for nearly 80 million children. The major interruptions in immunisation against diseases including measles, diphtheria, polio and cholera could put the lives of nearly 80 million children under the age of 1 at risk, according to a new analysis from the World Health Organization and partners. As the world comes together to develop a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19, we must not forget the dozens of lifesaving vaccines that already exist and must continue to reach children everywhere, as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, points out. Child mortality rates have dropped by half over the past 20 years, largely due to safe, effective vaccination. However, the COVID-19 pandemic means routine immunisation services are now substantially hindered in nearly 70 countries, with roughly 80 million children likely to be affected. As UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore explained, vaccination campaigns have dwindled for several reasons, including implementation of measures to contain coronavirus spread, redeployment of health personnel to treat COVID-19 patients, and serious disruption to supply chains and transport routes. Parents have also been reluctant, or unable, to go to vaccination sites due to fears surrounding transmission, or because of movement restrictions. Nonetheless, despite the dire news, there have been some positive developments too. Some countries such as Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire and Laos, are forging ahead with vaccine programmes, as per Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer at GAVI.
Recent modelling from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that if you were to try to avoid getting COVID by stopping routine immunisation, for every COVID death prevented you would have more than 100 deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases. That does come as a scary prediction. While health experts express fear that the coronavirus pandemic could erode the global fight against many diseases, sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worst affected by malaria. It had 93% of the world’s cases and 94% of deaths in 2018. Last month, the Measles and Rubella Initiative said more than 24 countries including South Sudan, Mexico and Bangladesh had suspended immunisations, and that figure could rise. The most alarming suspension of an immunisation programme has occurred in Congo, where more than 6,000 people have died in the largest current measles outbreak. In 2018, 140,000 measles deaths, mostly among children and babies, were recorded — most were preventable, meaning that the countries they occurred in had a vaccination programme. Of the two dozen countries to have officially suspended measles vaccine programmes — ostensibly to protect health workers and prioritise COVID-19 response — several have seen worrying rise in measles cases in recent years. Under the Global Vaccine Action Plan, measles and rubella are targeted for elimination in five WHO Regions by 2020. WHO is the lead technical agency responsible for coordination of immunization and surveillance activities supporting all countries to achieve this goal. Urgent efforts must certainly be taken to prepare to close the immunity gaps that the measles and other such viruses will exploit. It is true that WHO is working with governments around the world to ensure supply chains remain open and lifesaving health services are reaching all communities. However, all stakeholders should also bear in mind that any suspension of childhood vaccination services is a major threat to life.