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WHO, Unicef, Gavi: 80 million children under one at risk as Covid-19 disrupts routine vaccination programs

  • Published at 05:11 pm May 23rd, 2020
Photo: Bigstock

They warned that routine immunization services are substantially hindered in at least 68 countries

The World Health Organization, The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have warned that at least 80 million children under one are at risk of contracting diseases like diphtheria, measles, and polio, with Covid-19 disrupting routine vaccination programs.

The warning, issued by the agencies in a joint statement on May 22, comes ahead of the Global Vaccine Summit on 4 June, at which world leaders will come together to help maintain immunization programs and mitigate the impact of the pandemic in lower-income countries.

The statement warned that routine immunization services are substantially hindered in at least 68 countries and will likely affect approximately 80 million children under the age of one, living in these countries.

“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 programs from the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”

The statement said that 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. Also, many health workers are unavailable because of restrictions on travel, or redeployment to Covid response duties, as well as a lack of protective equipment.

“More children in more countries are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi CEO. “Due to Covid-19 this immense progress is now under threat, risking the resurgence of diseases like measles and polio. Not only will maintaining immunization programs 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 due to lockdown measures are exacerbating the situation, said the statement. 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. 

“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 immunization efforts, these immunizations must restart as soon as possible, or we risk exchanging one deadly outbreak for another.”

It added that next week, WHO will issue new advice to countries on maintaining essential services during the pandemic, including recommendations on how to provide immunizations safely.

The coronavirus pandemic has thus far infected 5,320,865 people and killed 340,261 people globally.

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