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COVID-19 blamed for major backsliding on childhood vaccinations: WHO, UNICEF

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Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2021. 1:24 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Some 23 million children did not take their basic childhood vaccines under routine immunization services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and up to 17 million were not vaccinated at all, 3.7 million more than 2019, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, lamented the irony of the worldwide push to vaccinate against COVID-19 – currently, most children under 12 are not cleared for the various vaccines – while going backwards on childhood vaccination and risking the return of such deadly diseases as measles, polio or meningitis.

“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,” he said.

In the Americas, 82 percent of children are vaccinated for diphteria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), down from 91 percent in 2016 due to a combination of funding shortfalls, vaccine misinformation, instability and other factors. Ironically, COVID-19 restrictions on movement contributed to fewer vaccinations. In addition, many people were reluctant to go to health facilities to request vaccinations for fear of COVID-19 transmission.

“It is imperative that we close the gap that separates children from the vaccines that can protect them from dangerous diseases. The Americas has been a victim of its own success, but we must redouble our efforts to ensure that no child is left behind when it comes to the immunization schedule. We have done it before and we can do it again now,” said Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

Even prior to the COVID-19 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.

With many resources and personnel diverted to support the COVID-19 response, there have been significant disruptions to immunization service provision in many parts of the world. In some countries, clinics have been closed or hours reduced, while people may have been reluctant to seek healthcare because of fear of transmission or have experienced challenges reaching services due to lockdown measures and transportation disruptions.

Concerns are not just for outbreak-prone diseases. Already at low rates, vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV) – which protect girls against cervical cancer later in life – have been highly affected by school closures. As a result, across countries that have introduced HPV vaccine to date, approximately 1.6 million more girls missed out in 2020. Globally only 13% girls were vaccinated against HPV, falling from 15% in 2019.

As countries work to recover lost ground due to COVID-19 related disruptions, UNICEF, WHO and partners like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are supporting efforts to strengthen immunization systems by:

• Restoring services and vaccination campaigns so countries can safely deliver routine immunization programmes during the COVID-19 pandemic;

• Helping health workers and community leaders communicate actively with caregivers to explain the importance of vaccinations;

• Rectifying gaps in immunization coverage, including identifying communities and people who have been missed during the pandemic.

• 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.

• Implementing country plans to prevent and respond to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and strengthen immunization systems as part of COVID-19 recovery efforts

The agencies are working with countries and partners to deliver the ambitious targets of the global Immunization Agenda 2030, which aims to achieve 90% coverage for essential childhood vaccines; halve the number of entirely unvaccinated, or ‘zero dose’ children, and increase the uptake of newer lifesaving vaccines such as rotavirus or pneumococcus in low and middle-income countries.

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