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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt essential health services worldwide, including childhood vaccinations. According to data published on Thursday by WHO and UNICEF, as many as 23 million children missed out on basic vaccines through routine immunization services in 2020 3.7 million more than in 2019. Most of these up to 17 million children likely did not receive a single vaccine during the year, further widening inequities in vaccine access. Compared to 2019, last year saw 3.5 million more children missing their first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis combined vaccine (DTP-1) while 3 million more children missed their first measles dose.
Concerningly India witnessed the greatest increase in children not receiving a first dose of (DTP-1). The new WHO, UNICEF data showed that more than three million children in India missed a first dose DTP-1 in 2020 as compared to 1.4 million in 2019. India's DTP-3 coverage also fell from 91% to 85%.
While disruptions in immunization services were widespread in 2020, the WHO Southeast Asian and Eastern Mediterranean Regions were most affected. Below is the list of countries with highest increase in children not receiving DTP-1.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, global childhood vaccination rates against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles and polio remained at around 86%, well below the 95% recommended by WHO. The pandemic has further disrupted routine immunisation, leaving millions of children exposed to deadly, preventable diseases.
"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," he added.
Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance pointed out that the pandemic is "unravelling years of progress in routine immunization and exposing millions of children to deadly, preventable diseases."
"This is a wake-up call we cannot allow a legacy of COVID-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers. We all need to work together to help countries both defeat COVID-19, by ensuring global, equitable access to vaccines, and get routine immunization programmes back on track. The future health and wellbeing of millions of children and their communities across the globe depends on it," he stated.
Children are not just at risk for outbreak-prone diseases. School closures due to the pandemic affected vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV) - which protect girls against cervical cancer later in life. Across countries that have introduced HPV vaccine to date, approximately 1.6 million more girls missed out in 2020, as compared to 2019. Globally only 13% girls were vaccinated against HPV last year, falling from 15% in 2019 as per the WHO-UNICEF data.
In addition to routine immunization disruptions, 57 countries have postponed mass vaccination campaigns in 66 countries, for measles, polio, yellow fever and other diseases, affecting millions more people, the agencies reported.
UNICEF, WHO and partners like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are working with countries, supporting efforts to strengthen immunization systems.
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