COVID 19 is disrupting life-saving immunisation services around the world, putting millions of children at risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio warns World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF and Gavi the Vaccine Alliance.
This warning comes ahead of the Global Vaccine Summit on June 4 2020, at which world leaders will come together to help maintain immunization programmes and mitigate the impact of the pandemic in lower-income countries.
According to data collected by the WHO, UNICEF, Gavi and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, provision of routine immunization services is substantially hindered in at least 68 countries and is likely to affect approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 living in these countries.
Since March 2020, routine childhood immunisation services have been disrupted on a global scale that may be unprecedented since the inception of expanded programs on immunization (EPI) in the 1970s.
More than half (53 percent) of the 129 countries where data were available reported moderate-to-severe disruptions, or a total suspension of vaccination services during March-April 2020.
“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”
He continued: “At the 4 June Global Vaccine Summit in London, donors will pledge their support to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to sustain and accelerate this lifesaving work in some of the most vulnerable countries. From the bottom of my heart, I urge donors to fully fund the Alliance. These countries, these children especially, need vaccines, and they need Gavi.”
The reasons for disrupted services vary. Some parents are reluctant to leave home because of restrictions on movement, lack of information or because they fear infection with the COVID-19 virus.
And many health workers are unavailable because of restrictions on travel, or redeployment to COVID response duties, as well as a lack of protective equipment.
Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi CEO said: “More children in more countries are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history. Due to COVID-19 this immense progress is now under threat, risking the resurgence of diseases like measles and polio.
“Not only will maintaining immunisation programmes prevent more outbreaks, it will also ensure we have the infrastructure we need to roll out an eventual COVID-19 vaccine on a global scale.”
Transport delays of vaccines are exacerbating the situation. UNICEF has reported a substantial delay in planned vaccine deliveries due to the lockdown measures and the ensuing decline in commercial flights and limited availability of charters.
To help mitigate this, UNICEF is appealing to governments, the private sector, the airline industry, and others, to free up freight space at an affordable cost for these life-saving vaccines.
Gavi recently signed an agreement with UNICEF to provide advance funding to cover increased freight costs for delivery of vaccines, in light of the reduced number of commercial flights available for transport.
“We cannot let our fight against one disease come at the expense of long-term progress in our fight against other diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We have effective vaccines against measles, polio and cholera. While circumstances may require us to temporarily pause some immunisation efforts, these immunizations must restart as soon as possible, or we risk exchanging one deadly outbreak for another.”
Next week, WHO will issue new advice to countries on maintaining essential services during the pandemic, including recommendations on how to provide immunisations safely.