According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit vaccination programs hard for other dangerous diseases such as polio and measles. The problem mainly affects children. Last year, as many as 23 million of them did not receive the vaccines that protect not only their health but also their lives.
Vaccination rates among children have been getting worse year after year recently. In the rich Western world, this is influenced by fake news about the supposed harm of vaccines or anti-vaccine trends.
The successful elimination or very significant reduction of many dangerous infectious diseases that attack children, such as polio, sometimes creates the impression that „vaccines are unnecessary.”
In these poorer countries, where serious infectious diseases affecting children are an unpleasant everyday reality, the problem is the lack of funds and vaccines themselves.
Pandemic harms children’s vaccinations
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed significantly to the deterioration of the children’s vaccination. Health systems in many countries around the world were severely overloaded due to the fight against coronavirus or even collapsed under the huge number of sick people. Thus, there was a lack of time and energy to ensure mandatory vaccination programs for children.
In turn, disruptions in supply chains have made it difficult to supply the vaccines themselves or the intermediates for their manufacture. Many production lines in pharmaceutical factories have also been switched to producing COVID-19 vaccines, but this has so far benefited mainly the West.
According to WHO and the child-focused UNICEF’s calculations, at least 23 million children worldwide did not receive the required routine vaccinations for their age in 2020 due to the pandemic. That’s up 3.7 million more than in 2019 and also the most since 2009.
Moreover, among these 23 million children who missed basic vaccinations, even 17 million did not received a single vaccine. Thus, they are not protected against life-threatening diseases that almost no longer exist in the Western world, such as polio or viral meningitis.
WHO: We are going backwards in vaccinations other than against COVID-19
However, it is mostly about missed vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) or measles. What is worse, it concerns mainly newborn children who did not get the key first doses of these vaccinations. The situation with revaccinations for older children is much better.
As many as 3.5 million more children than a year before did not get the first DTP vaccine in their lives, and 3 million more did not get the first measles vaccine. „While more countries around the world are getting into the COVID-19 vaccine race, we have started to go backwards in other vaccinations,” said WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
According to WHO, the lack of vaccinations for the above mentioned diseases creates a risk of the emergence of new outbreaks of infections. In recent years there have already been outbreaks of measles, mainly in Africa, but also in Europe, including Ukraine, Belgium and Italy.
When it comes to polio, which until the invention of an effective vaccine in the 1950s had taken a heavy toll even in the richest countries of the world – Western Europe or the USA, has recently made a strong comeback in regions gripped by armed conflict and controlled by armed groups that do not allow foreign medical missions. This was the case for example in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The worst situation is in India
The percentage of vaccinated children is now declining worldwide, but mostly in Southeast Asian and Eastern Mediterranean countries. The largest number of children who missed the vaccination is in India – as many as 3 million (compared to 1.4 million in 2019). Pakistan was second with 968,000 (567,000 the year before), and Indonesia was third with 797,000 (472,000 the year before).
These three countries are followed by Philippines, Mexico, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Argentina, Venezuela and Mali. In each of them, the number of unvaccinated children has nearly doubled.
This is especially dangerous in the case of measles, because the virus that causes the disease has one of the highest so-called R-factors, which show how many people can be further infected by one infected person.
The SARS-CoV-2 responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic has an R-factor of 1.5-3 (depending on its variant) in populations without a so-called collective immunity. In comparison, the R-factor for measles can reach up to 16.
That’s why – while in the case of COVID-19 the collective immunity is reached when about 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, in the case of measles it is as high as 95 percent. Meanwhile, currently – globally – 86 percent of children are vaccinated against measles. However in the most endangered regions, this percentage is much lower.
„The situation was already bad, and the pandemic has made it even worse. While the world is focused on equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, we must remember that the distribution of vaccines has never been equitable, but it doesn’t mean it still has to be this way”, UNICEF head Henrietta Fore said.
More than 140,000 people died from measles worldwide in 2018. Most of these were children under the age of 5 who had never been vaccinated. The highest number of measles deaths were reported in Somalia, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine.
In addition to the fact that immunization programs for children in poor countries are not financed sufficiently and that many health workers are only concerned about fighting the pandemic, the vaccines themselves are not available.
Not only are the factories producing less of them because they had to shift some of their production capacity to making vaccines against COVID-19, but there are also problems with transporting the vaccines to regions where they are not produced, such as Africa.
The pandemic, especially in its initial phase, grounded many airplanes and restricted other transport connections. Additionally, the economic crisis caused by lockdowns reduced many states’ budgetary resources.
„UNICEF is calling on governments, the private sector, airlines and others to make available – at low costs – cargo space to transport life-saving vaccines and help us overcome the obstacles we face today”, said last year Marixie Mercado, an organization’s spokeswoman.
Children’s vaccination backlog
Although the situation has already improved, a huge logistical backlog emerged that has not been fully caught up yet. And transport prices are still high.
„Economic lockdown in many countries, the dramatic decline in commercial flights and the exorbitant cost of providing replacements led to a situation where the cost of transportation today has risen 100 and even 200 percent above the norm”, UNICEF estimates.
And just as the rise in transport costs has already had a strong impact on for example the price of wood and steel, which has affected almost everyone building or renovating a house in Europe, so have the prices of vaccines.
Vaccine stocks in many African countries have fallen by even 80 to 90 percent. And while 23 million children did not receive vaccines at all, 117 million more received them with considerable delays compared to medical recommendations.
„Every child should receive all necessary doses of the required vaccines at the right time to get the best possible protection. Otherwise we risk multiple outbreaks of measles and polio”, explains Dr Kate O’Brien, responsible for global immunisation programms for children.
„All the data on children vaccination is alarming. They show that the COVID-19 pandemic is destroying the achievements of recent years in the immunization of children. Many of them are now exposed to deadly diseases that can be so easily prevented by vaccination. This is the final wake-up call if we don’t want the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic to be the return of other dangerous diseases,” said GAVI vaccine coalition leader Dr Seth Berkley.