COVID-19: WHO, UNICEF flag sharp decline in vaccination, warn of more lapses

There was a substantial drop in number of children completing three doses of vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis in first four months of 2020

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 15 July 2020

Disruptions in the delivery and uptake of immunisation services caused by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has led to an alarming decline in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said July 15, 2020.

Improvements, such as the expansion of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine to 106 countries and greater protection for children against more diseases, are in the danger of lapsing, according to the latest data on vaccine coverage estimates from WHO and UNICEF for 2019.  

For example, the number of children completing three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) dipped substantially, according to the preliminary data for the first four months of 2020. This is the first time in 28 years that the world could see a reduction in DTP3 coverage — the marker for immunisation coverage within and across countries.

At least 30 measles vaccination campaigns were or are at risk of being cancelled, which could result in further outbreaks in 2020 and beyond, the report said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said:

Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools in the history of public health, and more children are now being immunised than ever before. But the pandemic has put those gains at risk. The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunisations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said. “Vaccines can be delivered safely even during the pandemic, and we are calling on countries to ensure these essential life-saving programmes continue,” Ghebreyesus said.

To reimagine reimagine immunisation, UNICEF and WHO suggested the following:

  • Restoring services so countries can safely deliver routine immunisation services during the pandemic, by adhering to hygiene and physical distancing recommendations and providing protective equipment to health workers
  • Helping health workers communicate actively with caregivers to explain how services have been reconfigured to ensure safety
  • Rectifying coverage and immunity gaps
  • Expanding routine services to reach missed communities, where some of the most vulnerable children live

COVID-19 disruptions

Most people were unable to access the services because of reluctance to leave home, transport interruptions, economic hardships, restrictions on movement, or fear of being exposed to people with COVID-19.

Several health workers were also unavailable for the service because of restrictions on travel.

Most states in India, too, had halted immunisation activities during the two-month-long lockdown. In some states, they continued at health centres, but the community health workers could not visit homes to immunise a child. The Union government has twice said that it has written to states to resume these activities. 

In Uttar Pradesh, at least 1.5 million children missed their doses of vaccination due to the lockdown. 

Global coverage rate hit

Progress on immunisation coverage was stalling before COVID-19 hit; it was at 85 per cent for DTP3 and measles vaccines. 

In 2019, nearly 14 million children missed out on life-saving vaccines such as measles and DTP3. Most of these children live in Africa and are likely to lack access to other health services.

Two-thirds of them are concentrated in 10 middle- and low-income countries: Angola, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Philippines.

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