The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a major plunge in childhood vaccination rates worldwide, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning the effects of children missing routine immunizations could become even worse than the pandemic itself.
The emergence of COVID-19 threatens to reverse "hard-won progress to reach more children and adolescents with a wider range of vaccines," the WHO said.
A WHO survey — conducted in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — found three-quarters of responding countries reported COVID-19 related disruptions in their vaccine programs as of May.
"The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself. But it doesn’t have to be that way," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
"Vaccines can be delivered safely even during the pandemic, and we are calling on countries to ensure these essential life-saving programs continue,” Tedros said.
The world is closer than ever to eradicating polio, the WHO said, and deaths from measles declined by 73 percent worldwide between 2000 and 2018.
But according to WHO data, coronavirus-related lockdown measures substantially hindered the delivery of immunization services in at least 68 countries, putting approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 at increased risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases.
For example, preliminary data for the first four months of 2020 points to a substantial drop in the number of children completing three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3). According to WHO, this is the first time in 28 years that the world could see a reduction in DTP3 coverage.
According to the survey, there are a variety of reasons parents have not been getting children vaccinated. Even when vaccine services are offered, people are either unable to access them because of a reluctance to leave home, they are limited by transport interruptions, economic hardships, restrictions on movement, or fear of being exposed to people with COVID-19.
Many health workers are also unavailable because of restrictions on travel or redeployment to COVID response duties as well as a lack of protective equipment, the report noted.