COVID-19 vaccinations could decrease routine immunization for children

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A health worker marks a child’s finger with ink during a polio immunization exercise in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Photo by: ©UNICEF Ethiopia / 2015 / Meklit Mersha / CC BY-NC-ND

Over the past year, efforts to increase the vaccination of preventable diseases in children, such as polio, measles, and rotavirus, were interrupted by lockdowns. With COVID-19 vaccine rollouts underway, health experts are concerned that it could exacerbate the situation as health workers are overburdened and funds diverted.

“What we are concerned about is a further decline because immunization staff are diverted to speed up the COVID vaccine rollouts,” Eleonore Antoinette Ba-Nguz, regional immunization coordinator for East and Southern Africa at UNICEF, told Devex.

Stretched thin: Some countries don’t have adequate operational expenses to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, and governments are taking funds from other programs — potentially routine immunization programs, Ba-Nguz said.

Ideally, governments would set up different teams for conducting routine immunizations and handling COVID-19 vaccinations, but there has been little time for planning COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, and so that’s not always happening, she said.

Why this matters: As health workers take on the additional burden of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, it can lead to congested health clinics and long wait times for parents bringing in kids for immunization.

“There is no reason why that mother will wait for two hours. She can just decide to [leave] and might decide not to come back. Or she might say to her neighbors: ‘Oh, when you go to the health facility, you will be waiting for three hours,’” Ba-Nguz said, adding that unvaccinated children are at risk of dying from preventable diseases.

Ba-Nguz said UNICEF and the World Health Organization are monitoring the toll of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts on health workers and subsequently routine vaccination programs in the countries they work to collect firm data on the impact.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.