'RED ALERT': Pandemic side-effect leads to 30-year low

The Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the biggest setback in childhood vaccinations in years, meaning millions of infants aren't protected against potentially deadly diseases.

A joint report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF revealed the percentage of children who were fully vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) fell to 81 per cent.

The DTP3 vaccination rate among children fell five percentage points between 2019 and 2021 and the vaccine is used as a marker for immunisation coverage across the world.

The report released on July 15 said this means 25 million children have missed out on one or more doses of DTP through routine immunisation in 2021.

A girl is inoculated with the Sinovac vaccine againsgt COVID-19 by a disguised worker of the Public Health Ministry at the Maria Montessori Initial Education Center, in Quito, on February 15, 2022
Childhood vaccination rates have dropped across the world at an alarming rate. Source: AFP via Getty Images

"This is two million more than those who missed out in 2020 and six million more than in 2019, highlighting the growing number of children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases," the report said.

Vaccine coverage dropped in every region, however, the East Asia and Pacific regions had the steepest decline, falling nine per cent in two years.

The WHO and UNICEF said this was the "largest sustained decline" in childhood vaccinations in around 30 years.

For many diseases, more than 90 per cent of children need to be vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks.

Covid pandemic fuels decline

The decline in immunisation rates — the lowest in 30 years — could be attributed to a number of factors, such as children living in conflict zones or settings where getting immunised might be challenging.

The report also highlighted misinformation and Covid-19-related issues might be factors, such as supply chain disruptions, resources being diverted to response efforts or containment measures and limited immunisation services and availability.

“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunisation in a generation," UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said.

"The consequences will be measured in lives."

A five year old boy receives his first shot of the corona vaccine in Vienna, Austria on November 15, 2021.
The pandemic cannot be blamed for the further decline of vaccination rates. Source: AFP via Getty Images

She added the "pandemic hangover" was expected last year due to the disruptions and lockdowns but Covid could not be blamed for the continued decline.

"We need immunisation catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems," she said.

'Grave consequences' for women and girls

Some 18 million of the 25 million children who did not receive a single DTP vaccine dose live in low and middle-income countries.

The leading agencies were hoping 2021 would bolster immunisation programs to compensate for 2020, however, DPT3 coverage was set back to the lowest levels since 2008.

“Planning and tackling Covid-19 should also go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhoea,” WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said.

“It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both”.

A child reacts as a health worker administers an Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) during a polio vaccination campaign in Lahore on March 2, 2021
More than 25 million children were not vaccinated against DTP. Source: AFP via Getty Images

More than a quarter of the coverage of HPV vaccines which was achieved in 2019 was lost in the last year, and the WHO and UNICEF warn this has "grave consequences" for women and girls.

There has also been a decline in other basic vaccines, which has put the world off-track to meeting global goals.

The drop in immunisation is happening against the backdrop of rising rates of severe acute malnutrition.

"A malnourished child already has weakened immunity and missed vaccinations can mean common childhood illnesses quickly become lethal to them," the WHO and UNICEF said.

"The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunisation gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis."

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