Apart from the health crisis directly caused by the disease itself, the COVID-19 pandemic that has been ravaging the world in the last two years has created another serious risk: delayed or cancelled routine immunization among children.
Life-saving routine vaccination programs have been upset by the pandemic, the WHO noted last week, and this threatens to deepen global immunity gaps and reverse progress in survival rates achieved by immunication programs that allow for the control and elimination of some of the deadliest childhood diseases.
Unless major catch-up efforts are put in place, “the decline in vaccination coverage seen in 2020 raises serious questions about the achievability” of the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030), which envisages that “an estimated 51 million future deaths in total will be averted by vaccination between 2021 and 2030, if coverage targets are met,” according to a WHO report.
Among the key consequences of COVID-19 was a decline in administration of most vaccines, reflecting “pandemic pressures on health systems, limited capacity to mobilize funding, and de-prioritization of expansion of services,” the WHO report said.
The draft global report outlining the Immunization Agenda 2030 for 2021 and the progress of providing vaccines for all kinds of diseases worldwide was delivered during the WHO’s Executive Board session, which took place last week.
According to UNICEF, IA2030 is an ambitious global strategy, with a target date of 2030, that aims: to “reduce by 50% the number of children receiving zero vaccine doses,” to “achieve 500 introductions of new or under-utilized vaccines in low- and middle-income countries” and to “achieve 90% coverage for essential childhood vaccines.”
On top of the 3% drop in global coverage of DTP3 (the third dose of a vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) to 83% in 2020 compared to the year before, “the number of zero-dose children (not receiving any DTP doses) has increased for the first time in a decade from 13.6 million in 2019 to 17.1 million in 2020,” the report said.
Risk of ‘vaccine-preventable disease’
Back in July 2021, a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published in the journal The Lancet found that COVID-19 disrupted routine vaccinations among children worldwide.
According to the study, “30 million children missed doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine, and 27.2 million missed doses of the measles vaccine (MCV1)” from January-December 2020.
Another report, published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in June 2021, found that routine childhood immunization doses dropped substantially in the first half of 2020 and warned that the “lag in catch-up vaccination might pose a serious public health threat that would result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.”
“It is critical that routine immunization programmes continue during this crisis, while adequately protecting health workers and individuals receiving vaccinations. Reaching the most vulnerable children who have missed routine immunizations in the past should be prioritized,” said Ms. Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Overall, the WHO report said, immunization efforts took a large step backwards in 2020, with vaccination coverage falling globally falling for the first time in a decade. Therefore, the critical priorities for the years ahead should be “catch-up of lost ground and regenerating the momentum towards universal vaccination coverage.”