While efforts to end COVID-19 has continued to gather steam with the successful roll-out of vaccines in over a hundred countries, the pandemic continues to hinder routine immunisation services, thereby putting millions of children at risk of deadly diseases.

The second round of a World Health Organisation “pulse survey” revealed that over one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, substantial disruptions persist, with about 90 per cent of countries still reporting one or more disruptions to essential health services.

The survey published during the  World Immunisation Week 2021 in the last week of April (April 24th-30th) also highlighted the urgent need for a renewed global commitment to improve vaccination access and uptake.

According to the WHO data, 60 mass immunisation campaigns are currently postponed in 50 countries, putting around 228 million people – mostly children – at risk for diseases such as measles, yellow fever and polio.

Over half of the 50 affected countries are in Africa, highlighting protracted inequities in people’s access to critical immunisation services.

“Vaccines will help us end the COVID-19 pandemic but only if we ensure fair access for all countries, and build strong systems to deliver them,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general. “And if we’re to avoid multiple outbreaks of life-threatening diseases like measles, yellow fever and diphtheria, we must ensure routine vaccination services are protected in every country in the world.”

Survey

Despite progress when compared to the situation in 2020, more than one-third of respondent countries (37 per cent) still report experiencing disruptions to their routine immunisation services, the survey found.

Campaigns to immunise against measles, which is one of the most contagious diseases and can result in large outbreaks wherever people are unvaccinated, are the most impacted. Measles campaigns account for 23 of the 60 postponed campaigns, affecting an estimated 140 million people. Many have now been delayed for over a year.

“Even before the pandemic, there were worrying signs that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight against preventable child illness, with 20 million children already missing out on critical vaccinations,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, causing millions more children to go unimmunized.”

This situation is more event in countries like Nigeria that are already grappling with conflict situations and other challenges even before the service disruptions due to ongoing response measures to COVID-19.

Nigerian situation

Routine Immunisation is regarded as one of the greatest contributions to global health to date, given the high rate of infectious diseases affecting under-fives.

Deadly diseases, such as smallpox and measles, have become rare and some eradicated, improving health indices of many countries.

Evidence shows that each year, immunisation prevents 2- 3 million deaths globally.

In Nigeria, routine immunisations are particularly important as the under-five mortality rate has consistently been high.

Nigeria ranks the highest in the number of under-five deaths as a direct result of vaccine-preventable diseases. This is according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which states that in 2019, 858,000 under-five deaths occurred in Nigeria.

The 2018 Nigeria Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) also estimated that the under-five mortality rate in Nigeria is 132 per 1,000 live births; which is about 1 in 8 Nigerian children.

It is estimated that the 1 in 4 deaths that occur in children under-five in Nigeria are entirely preventable with recommended vaccines.

Nigeria’s coverage is currently below the goals of the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP), which aims to ensure that individuals, regardless of where they are or live, can equitably access vaccines.

The focus on COVID-19 response in the country has further widened the gaps in vaccination coverage for other diseases.

Way forward

Annually, the World Immunisation Week is an opportunity for international organisations to highlight the significance of immunisation by creating campaigns and building awareness on universal immunisation coverage.

WHO, UNICEF and the vaccine alliance, GAVI, said they have a new global strategy that will have the potential to save 50 million lives within less than a decade.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: 16.6 million Africa children miss measles vaccination – WHO

“If we’re to avoid multiple outbreaks of life-threatening diseases like measles, yellow fever, and diphtheria, we must ensure routine vaccination services are protected in every country in the world,” WHO chief, Mr Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.

Mrs Fore, head of UNICEF said, “now that vaccines are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must sustain this energy to help every child catch up on their measles, polio, and other vaccines. We have no time to waste. Lost ground means lost lives.”

According to GAVI chief, Seth Berkley, “to support the recovery from COVID-19 and to fight future pandemics, we will need to ensure routine immunization is prioritized as we also focus on reaching children who do not receive any routine vaccines, or zero-dose children. To do this, we need to work together – across development agencies, governments, and civil society – to ensure that no child is left behind.”

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