The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF today sounded the alarm as new data revealed that global vaccination coverage in 2021 is the lowest in a generation leaving around 25 million children without lifesaving immunization as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt health care globally.
“This is the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccination in approximately 30 years and the proportion of children who received the third dose of vaccines that contains diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis - which is against whooping cough - this is our marker for immunization coverage both within and across countries”, said Dr Kate O’BRIEN, WHO Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals today at a press briefing at the United Nations in Geneva.
This is the second year in a row with backsliding vaccination. WHO had hoped 2021 would be a recovery year as 101 countries still have net loss compared to 2021.
“In 2021 there were 25 million children who missed out on one or more doses of their DTP containing vaccines, through routine immunization services”, said WHO’s Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. “This threatens increased outbreaks, deaths and for some who survived the illnesses that they otherwise would not have gotten, livelong consequences”.
WHO stressed that planning and tackling COVID-19 should go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for deadly diseases like measles, HPV, pneumonia and diarrhea.
“The pandemic is not over, we need to both sustain and maintain momentum on COVID-19 population through vaccination”. said Dr Kate O’BRIEN. “But it also means that we have to ensure vaccination for measles and HPV and pneumonia and diarrhea gets back on track urgently. That means catching up millions of children who have missed their vaccines in 2020 and 2021”. Dr. Brian also added that “it also means recovering immunization programs and sustaining that trajectory of essential immunization”.
At the moment, countries are off-track to achieve the global targets that require reaching every child with life-saving vaccine by 2030.
“The alarm is that we are witnessing the largest continued drop in vaccination in a generation”, said Ephrem Tekle LEMANGO, UNICEF Associate Director, Health Immunization speaking via zoom from New York. “At UNICEF we are deeply concerned about what this backsliding means for children, especially in those children who live in lower- and middle-income countries, even that it comes with dire consequences”.
According to UNICEF, inadequate coverage levels have resulted in avoidable outbreaks of measles and polio. Malawi and Mozambique reported outbreaks of wild polio after more than three decades. Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia have witnessed large measles outbreaks in the past year. UNICEF is deeply concerned that if countries don’t catch-up vaccinations, more outbreaks will occur.
“Unfortunately, not only did we not see a recovery, we - in fact - lost even more ground and we are already seeing the consequences of this”, said UNICEF’s Mr. Lemango. “Inadequate coverage levels have resulted in avoidable outbreaks of diseases such as measles and polio in the past 12-month period”,
A growing immunization gap combined with other factors such as severe acute malnutrition creates the condition for a child survival crisis.
“The other factor we must consider is the disproportionate impact of this immunity gap in countries with other risk factors such as fragilities, conflict, and above all now the current level of malnutrition that we are seeing as a result of the global food crisis, in particularly the drought affecting several countries in different regions”, said UNICEF’s Associate Director on Health Immunisation. He added that “a malnourished child has a weakened immune system, missed vaccinations can mean common childhood illnesses quickly become lethal”.
But the pandemic has also shown a source of hope. “Despite the difficulties, it’s clear from our collective lived experience the last 2 years that when political will, communities support, and funding - adequate funding - converge together, we can ensure that vaccination reach billions, in fact in the most hard to reach communities as well”, said Ephrem Tekle LEMANGO”.
Mr. Lemango stressed that “we have an opportunity in this moment to ensure that COVID-19 response helps boost immunization affects and does not further hinder them". He added that "most COVID-19 vaccination and routine immunization for children can nurture each other and can synergize each other”.