Today, the United Nations warned of the risk of “absolute disaster” if the serious delay in immunizing children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is not resolved and health restrictions are lifted very quickly.
“In 2021, we have the potential for absolute catastrophe,” said Dr Kate O’Brien, director of the Department of Immunization at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.
The pandemic has forced a diversion of resources and staff to the fight against the coronavirus, and many medical services have been forced to close or reduce their hours.
People have also become reluctant to move out of fear of the virus, even when restrictive measures do not prevent movement.
O’Brien emphasized that the situation of unprotected children and the very rapid lifting of health restrictions against COVID-19 – which partly took care of some childhood illnesses – are already starting to show their effects, for example with the outbreak of measles in Pakistan.
Combined, he insisted, these two factors are “the ultimate disaster that is sounding the alarm now, because we need to act immediately to protect these children.”
In 2020, 23 million children did not receive the three doses of the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine, which are a reference measure, according to data released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF on Thursday.
This is the highest number since 2009 and represents an increase of 3.7 million children compared to 2019.
Most critical for the two agencies is that 17 million children – most of whom live in conflict areas, isolated locations or highly deprived neighborhoods and are deprived of health infrastructure – certainly did not receive a dose in the past year.
These numbers are “a clear warning sign, the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions it has caused have made us lose precious ground that we cannot give up and the consequences in deaths and loss of quality of life will pay off for the vulnerable majority,” lamented UNICEF Director Henrietta Fore.
The vaccination rate against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis had stagnated at 86% for several years before the epidemic and by 2020 had fallen to 83%.
In the case of measles, a highly contagious disease that requires 95% vaccination coverage to control it, only 71% of children received the second dose.
Mexico is in trouble
In the Americas, there is a ‘worrying long-term trend’, although the decline associated with the epidemic has been modest (2 percentage points lower than in 2019).
“Misinformation about vaccines, instability and other factors are forming a worrying panorama” in a region where “the vaccination rate continues to decline,” WHO and UNICEF say.
Only 82% of children have been fully immunized with the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, compared to 91% in 2016.
Mexico is one of the countries where the number of children not covered by the first dose of vaccines against these three diseases has increased the fastest, from 348,000 in 2019 to 454,000 last year.
In Asia, coverage dropped from 91% to 85% in 2020 in India, which had 3.5 million children who were either partially vaccinated or not. Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines have also seen an increase in the number of unprotected children.
The United Nations stressed the importance of not distributing HIV vaccines at the expense of childhood vaccination programmes.