Missed vaccinations leave children vulnerable in COVID-19 age
Ranvir Nayar
An alarming report was published last week by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report said that measles cases surged globally in 2019, reaching their highest level in 23 years, while deaths caused by the highly contagious disease that mainly impacts children had risen 50 percent since 2016.
The report said that almost 870,000 fresh cases of measles were reported in 2019, with 207,500 deaths, thus erasing almost two decades of efforts by governments and children’s organizations to eliminate the disease. It blamed a failure to vaccinate children on time as the main reason for the slippage.
The WHO and CDC highlighted the need for governments to increase their efforts to eliminate the deadly viral infection. Scientists say that current vaccination rates are far below the minimum threshold of 95 percent that is needed to curb the risk of infection spreading.
The report’s findings are extremely worrying, as they report data from last year, when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was unheard of in most parts of the world and when life had not been disrupted like it has been since the global spread of the pandemic.
The pandemic-enforced lockdowns we have seen this year are bound to have seriously impacted immunization programs around the world. This is due to several reasons. First is that lockdowns disrupt transportation, leading to challenges for medical personnel to get to work, at least in the initial period. Moreover, while hospitals may have been able to continue their operations, vaccinations all over the world are mainly carried out by nongovernmental organizations and most of them were very severely hampered. Several were forced to suspend their regular operations, while others worked with a skeleton staff, but even they were mainly deployed to help governments and hospitals fight the pandemic. The transport issue also disrupted the distribution of vaccines to the places where immunization can take place.
Another significant challenge for NGOs has been funding. Most are dependent on government money for their immunization programs, but the pandemic has seen state budgets shrink. And these shrunken budgets have almost entirely been diverted to boosting each country’s limited capacity for dealing with the massive and unprecedented rush of COVID-19 patients.
For several months now, NGOs working in the domain of immunization or fighting deadly infections like tuberculosis or polio have been calling on governments to ensure that, while they battle COVID-19, they should not ignore vaccinations. However, with their entire focus on fighting the pandemic, practically all other major healthcare programs in every country have either been suspended or vastly reduced.
As early as April, experts said that, within a period of three weeks, up to 13.5 million children had missed out on vaccinations for diseases like polio, tuberculosis and measles. They warned that missed vaccinations could have disastrous results and cause significant setbacks in the battle to eradicate these illnesses. By April, as many as 23 nations had suspended their measles campaigns due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, nearly 78 million children were expected to have missed their vaccines during 2020.
The numbers have now risen even further. The WHO-CDC report says that, even though the reported cases of measles this year are lower, efforts to control the pandemic have resulted in disruptions to vaccination programs and crippled efforts to prevent and minimize measles outbreaks. The report said that, by the beginning of this month, more than 94 million children were at risk of missing out on vaccination as programs had been stopped in 26 countries. This has already led to fresh outbreaks of measles in several countries and, even now, only eight of these 26 nations have managed to resume their vaccination programs.
Though similar data is not yet available on other communicable illnesses like polio or TB, the situation is hardly likely to be encouraging. Each of these illnesses is a major killer by itself and millions could either die or become seriously ill. Also, as most of the affected nations are poor, outbreaks impose an extremely heavy burden on their already weak and overburdened healthcare systems.
Moreover, in these countries, children and especially infants in poorer families are highly susceptible to other diseases, such as dysentery, which often turn fatal even though they are easily treated.
Even if the world manages to get a grip on the COVID-19 pandemic next year, it is almost certain to be left struggling to cope with unexpected side-effects in the form of TB or measles.
Overstretched healthcare systems, especially in the developing world, may not be able to cope with a rush of infections. Outbreaks are also a good indicator of the poor coverage of healthcare systems that may not be reaching the most vulnerable sections of society. Unlike COVID-19, which has afflicted rich and poor alike, illnesses like polio and TB mainly strike the poorer sections of society.
Already, the poor are paying a hefty price for COVID-19, at least in terms of the economic fallout, as hundreds of millions have lost their jobs and find themselves pushed back years, if not decades, in economic development. Fresh outbreaks of other illnesses will undoubtedly exact a very heavy price.
It may not be too late just yet, but governments and international organizations need to act fast and in a concerted manner to ensure that vaccination programs not only restart and catch up with their yearly targets, but also plug the gaps that have stubbornly remained in their coverage. Only then can the world avoid another year of dramatic horror stories.