WHO launches ‘The Big Catch-Up’ to restore immunisation progress lost during pandemic

More than 100 countries registered a drop in immunisation levels during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 25 April 2023
Photo: iStock

India is among the 20 countries in the world where around 75 per cent of children who have missed essential immunisation against preventable but critical diseases in 2021, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption has already led to outbreaks of such diseases, including measles, diphtheria, polio and yellow fever becoming more prevalent and severe. 

To mitigate this crisis, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, along with Immunization Agenda 2030 and a host of other public health organisations have come together to implement the The Big Catch-up, “a targeted global effort to boost vaccination among children following declines driven by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

More than 100 countries registered a drop in immunisation levels as the pandemic burdened health services, closed clinics as well as disrupted imports and exports of vials, syringes and other medical supplies. 

Access to healthcare was further compounded by strict lockdown measures, travel restrictions and depleting financial and human resources. 

Routine vaccines are typically a child’s first entry into the health system and so children who miss out on their early vaccines are at an added risk of being cut out of healthcare in the long run, said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “The longer we wait to reach and vaccinate these children, the more vulnerable they become and the greater the risk of more deadly disease outbreaks.”

Countries, global partners and local communities must come together to strengthen services, build trust and save lives, Russel added. 

While the pandemic has derailed immunisation efforts, some countries have already begun showing considerable progress. For instance, India managed to record a strong recovery in essential vaccines in 2022, Uganda stood out by maintaining high immunisation levels in the early years of the pandemic, while Kenya has targeted its approach to address immunisation needs of the country’s northern nomadic populations. 

“We cannot allow a legacy of the pandemic to be the undoing of many years’ work protecting more and more children from deadly, preventable diseases,” said Dr Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “Global health partners, working with governments and communities, must do everything we can to protect the life of every child.”

The Big Catch-Up will pay special attention to the 20 countries — Afghanistan, Angola, Brazil, Cameroon, Chad, DPRK, DRC, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Madagascar, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Tanzania and Vietnam — which are home to a majority of the children who have missed their vaccine doses. 

Salient features of the plan to bring immunisation levels back to at least pre-pandemic levels, if not better, include:

  • Strengthening health care workforces
  • Improving health service delivery
  • Building trust and demand for vaccines within communities
  • Addressing gaps and obstacles to restoring immunisation

“Vaccines are a public health triumph,” said Dr Chris Elias, president of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The incredible progress that has been made toward ending polio and reducing the incidence of infectious diseases is the direct result of thousands of dedicated global partners and local health workers who have worked to immunise millions of children, he added. 

“We must double down to reach all children with the vaccines they need to live healthier lives and ensure that future generations live free of preventable diseases like polio,” said Elias.

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