60 immunization campaigns postponed in 50 countries, WHO data shows

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A health worker vaccinating a child during a measles immunization campaign in Ethiopia. Photo by: Balasundaram / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

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Thirty-seven percent of 112 countries have reported disruptions in immunization services for the first three months of 2021. A World Health Organization survey results show that the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect routine immunization services in many countries.

The latest survey shows some improvement from a WHO survey done in 2020, which showed 62% of 129 countries reporting how COVID-19 has affected their immunization services. But with more than one-third of surveyed countries still reporting challenges in administering their routine vaccinations, “it remains a serious concern,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press briefing Monday.

According to WHO, 60 mass immunization campaigns are currently postponed in 50 countries, half of which are in Africa. This leaves 228 million people, mostly children, at risk of deadly but preventable diseases such as measles, yellow fever, and polio.

Before the pandemic, 20 million children were already missing out on critical vaccinations, Tedros said.

There is currently a huge focus on COVID-19 vaccines and its inequitable distribution between higher- and lower-income countries. But considering the 20 million children missing out on routine vaccinations every year, “it is also unsurprising vaccines have always been inequitably distributed,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF.

“While COVID-19 vaccines represent our best hope of returning to normal lives. We need to remind ourselves that millions of children all over the world have no access to vaccines for any of the preventable diseases, whatsoever. This is not a normal that we should return to,” she said.

Disruptions in vaccination coverage has resulted in recent measles outbreaks in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Yemen. The risk of similar outbreaks “is mounting elsewhere” Tedros said, as more children miss out on vaccines.

He said the new global immunization strategy, Immunization Agenda 2030, if fully implemented, could avert 50 million deaths over the next decade. The strategy aims to achieve 90% coverage for life saving vaccines, and halve the number of children missing out on these vaccines.

“It's an adaptive and flexible strategy, so it will be tailored by every country to their needs and situation, and revised as new opportunities and challenges emerge,” said Kate O’Brien, director at WHO’s Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals department.

COVID-19 vaccinations could decrease routine immunization for children

UNICEF is concerned that with overwhelmed health workers and health funds diverted to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, fewer children might receive routine immunizations.

Apart from immunizations, the latest WHO survey also showed persistent disruptions in health care interventions. About 20% of countries report disruptions in the provision of life-saving emergency, critical, and operative care interventions, while 66% of countries report disruptions in elective surgeries.

Over 40% of countries also report disruptions in primary care as well as rehabilitative, palliative, and long-term care services.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.