GENEVA – The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) say that the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades.
The UN agencies said that the percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3), a marker for immunization coverage within and across countries, fell five percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81 percent.
As a result, WHO and UNICEF said 25 million children missed out on one or more doses of DTP through routine immunization services in 2021 alone.
They said this is two million more than those who missed out in 2020 and 6 million more than in 2019, highlighting the growing number of children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases.
WHO and UNICEF said the decline was due to many factors, including an increased number of children living in conflict and fragile settings where immunization access is often challenging; increased misinformation and COVID-19 related issues, such as service and supply chain disruptions, resource diversion to response efforts, and containment measures that limited immunization service access and availability.
“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF executive director.
“While a pandemic hangover was expected last year as a result of COVID-19 disruptions and lockdowns, what we are seeing now is a continued decline. COVID-19 is not an excuse.
“We need immunization catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health system,” she added.
WHO and UNICEF said that, in the Americas, including the Caribbean, vaccination rates against polio, measles, rubella, diphtheria and other vaccine preventable diseases had been decreasing for the past 10 years, adding that this trend was exacerbated by the pandemic.
In 2021, more than 2.6 million children were unvaccinated or not fully up to date with their immunizations in the Americas, making them susceptible to diseases such as polio, tetanus and diphtheria, the UN agencies said.
They said regional coverage for the third dose of DTP fell from 91 percent in 2016 to 80 percent in 2021, and coverage for the first dose against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR1) dropped to 83 percent – an eight percent decrease since 2016.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said it has been working with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to strengthen routine immunizations programs and catch-up campaigns.
PAHO said it is also supporting regional countries in surveillance to detect emerging outbreaks and ensure a timely response to avoid further transmission of vaccine preventable diseases.
PAHO recommends that countries strengthen the infrastructure of national immunization programs, taking advantage of investments made during the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.
It said continuous improvement to vaccine cold chain operations, public communication efforts and the overall operation of health services are “key to bring all children up to date on vaccines.”
“Planning and tackling COVID-19 should also go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhea,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both”.
He said “monumental efforts will be required to reach universal levels of coverage and to prevent outbreaks.”