SWITZERLAND – Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) shows that 23 million children missed out on basic vaccines in 2020, a number that was 3.7 million more than data previously recorded in 2019.
Concerningly, most of these – up to 17 million children – likely did not receive a single vaccine during the year as a result of community conflict, poor accessibility and limited access to basic healthcare services, hence widening the already immense inequities in vaccine access.
The disruptions in immunization services were widespread in 2020, with the WHO Southeast Asian and Eastern Mediterranean Regions most affected.
“Even as countries clamour to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines, we have gone backwards on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “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.”
A further dive into the report showed that 3.5 million more children compared to 2019’s data missed out on their first dose of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine (DTP-1) and an additional 3 million children missed their first measles dose.
Data shows that middle-income countries now account for an increasing share of unprotected children – that is, children missing out on at least some vaccine doses. India is experiencing a particularly large drop, with DTP-3 coverage falling from 91% to 85%.
Fueled by funding shortfalls, vaccine misinformation, instability and other factors, a troubling picture is also emerging in WHO’s Region of the Americas, where vaccination coverage continues to fall. Just 82% of children are fully vaccinated with DTP, down from 91% in 2016.
WHO cautions about the resurgence of measles and other vaccine-preventable disease because 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.
Concerned agencies are calling upon countries to act on the growing concern of a decrease in the immunization process by ensuring vaccination campaigns are restored, proper plans are implemented to prevent and respond to outbreaks and rectification of immunization gaps.