Health and Healthcare Systems

Disrupted vaccine programs could put millions of young children at risk: COVID-19 WHO briefing

South Sudanese health workers prepare to administer vaccination against measles to children during a campaign in Juba, South Sudan February 4, 2020.

South Sudanese health workers prepare to administer vaccination against measles to children during a campaign in Juba. Image: REUTERS/Samir Bol

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 22 May to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • Data collected by a range of global health agencies shows that 80 million children aged 1 or younger could be at risk for vaccine preventable diseases thanks to disruptions to existing vaccination programs.

Eighty-million children, in both rich and poor countries around the world, could face infections from diseases such as measles and polio as resources are redirected at COVID-19 and existing vaccine programs are disrupted, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said at a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

According to data collected by the WHO, UNICEF, the Vaccine Alliance Gavi and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the impact is wide, affecting children under one-years-old in 68 countries.

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More than half of the 129 countries where data were available reported moderate-to-severe disruptions, or a total suspension of vaccination services, between March and April of this year.

Vaccination programs have been disrupted for a number of reasons, including overwhelmed health systems or issues connected with grounded flights and broken supply chains. In other cases, parents might face stay-at-home orders or campaigns have been suspended altogether to maintain physical distancing.

“We cannot let our fight against one disease come at the expense of long-term progress in our fight against other diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.

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According to the data, measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries and polio vaccination campaigns have been put on hold in 38 countries.

“Transmission of pathogens cross borders mean that we're all at risk when when any country is at risk,” said Dr. Kate O'Brien, the WHO Director for Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

Ensuring existing vaccination programs is key, said officials, since they could help with efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available.

Disruptions could damage years of efforts in countries around the world, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO. “Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles."

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