Routine Immunisation should not suffer due to COVID-19: WHO

Many Indian states have also suspended vaccination services

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 23 April 2020

Shutting of immunisation services during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak could trigger a resurgence of diseases that are preventable due to vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

In a statement released on April 23, 2020, the top health body said, “When immunisation services are disrupted, even for brief periods during emergencies, the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, such as measles and polio, increase.”

Incidentally, most states in India too have halted immunisation activities. In some states, they are continuing at health centres, but the community health workers are no longer visiting homes to immunise a child. The Union government has twice said that it has written to states to resume these activities. 

A group of public health activists wrote a letter to Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on April 23. Though immunisation services were being provided at health centres, parents were not able to go there either because of lockdown or the fear of catching COVID-19 disease, they wrote.

“There are districts where not even a single COVID-19 case has been reported or which are out of the hotspot criteria now,” Chhaya Pachauli, a public health activist from Rajasthan, said.

“These services can easily be provided at the village level in these districts by following social distancing measures and by equipping frontline health workers with the essential protective equipment,” she added. 

The WHO too advised countries on similar lines.

“Last year’s deadly measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which took more than 6,000 lives in a country already facing its largest Ebola outbreak, highlights the importance of maintaining essential health services, such as immunisation in times of emergency,” the organisation said.

“Further disease outbreaks will also overwhelm health systems already battling the impacts of COVID-19,” it added. 

WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that while all efforts are on to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, if routine immunisation services are stopped, other diseases will come roaring back. 

New WHO guidelines on immunisation and COVID-19 recommend that governments temporarily stop immunisation campaigns if there has been no any outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.

“However,  countries should prioritise the continuation of routine immunisation of children in essential service delivery, as well as adult vaccinations such as influenza for groups most at risk. If immunisation services must be suspended, urgent catch-up vaccinations should be rescheduled as soon as possible, prioritising those most at risk,” it said. 

The WHO has asked its member-states to act urgently to protect immunisation services even as the response to COVID-19 continues, in order to further minimise disease outbreaks and loss of life.

This includes facilitating urgent catch-up programmes in places where services have been disrupted, ensuring strong supply chains, disease surveillance and trained health workers.

In 2018, about 20 million children worldwide — more than 1 in 10 — missed out on life-saving vaccines such as those of measles, diphtheria and tetanus. 

“Measles continues to remain an ever-present threat, especially if vaccination rates drop. Current projections indicate that as many as 800,000 people may have been infected with the disease in 2019,” the WHO statement said.

“In 2020, there are increasing concerns about another resurgence, especially if vaccination rates fall due to delay or suspension of scheduled immunisation activities as a result of COVID-19,” it added. 

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