Covid pandemic triggers drop in routine childhood vaccinations

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to huge drops in childhood vaccinations, leaving countries more vulnerable to disease outbreaks, the World Health Organization has warned.

At least 23m children worldwide missed out on routine jabs last year as health services were disrupted, according to data from the WHO and Unicef. Vaccination rates fell in most countries, the data show, with south-east Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions the most badly affected. 

In India last year, more than 3m children did not receive their first dose of the diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus combined vaccine, up from 1.4m who did not get jabbed in 2019.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, called for more investment in childhood vaccination, warning that multiple disease outbreaks would be “catastrophic” for communities already battling coronavirus.

“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,” he said.

Public health experts are concerned that the pandemic has disrupted preventive medicine for infectious diseases and delayed treatment of chronic conditions, from cancer to cardiovascular problems. 

Healthcare systems have struggled to cope with floods of Covid patients, supply chains have been disrupted by lockdowns and some patients have been reluctant to seek care, fearing they would be infected by the virus. 

While developed countries with greater access to Covid vaccines are trying to put their healthcare programmes back on track, the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in healthcare. The two agencies said up to 17m children — mostly in communities affected by conflict, in remote areas or informal slum settings — were likely not to have received a single vaccine during the year. 

Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director, said that even before the pandemic, there were “worrying signs” the world was losing ground in the fight to immunise children. In 2018, more than 140,000 people, most under the age of five, died from measles as cases surged, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine.

The WHO estimates 95 per cent of children worldwide need to be vaccinated against measles to prevent such outbreaks — but vaccination rates have stalled at about 86 per cent. 

“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. With the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must remember that vaccine distribution has always been inequitable, but it does not have to be,” she said. 

Vaccination rates may have also been affected by misinformation, especially in the Americas, the two agencies said. In the US this week, Tennessee halted outreach to persuade teenagers to have vaccines, after a rightwing backlash against a campaign to promote the Covid shot. 

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the vaccines alliance Gavi, said the “alarming numbers” suggest “unravelling years of progress”. 

“This is a wake-up call: we cannot allow a legacy of Covid-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers,” he said.

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