Covid-19 pandemic fuels largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades

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The largest sustained decline in childhood vaccina-tions in approximately 30 years has been recorded in official data published today by WHO and UNICEF.

The percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) – a marker for immunization cov-erage within and across countries – fell 5 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81 per cent.

As a result, 25 million children missed out on one or more doses of DTP through routine immuni-zation services in 2021 alone. This is 2 million more than those who missed out in 2020 and 6 million more than in 2019, highlighting the growing number of children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases. The decline was due to many factors in-cluding an increased number of children living in conflict and fragile settings where immunization access is often challenging, increased misinformation and COVID-19 related issues such as service and supply chain disruptions, resource diversion to response efforts, and containment measures that limited immunization service access and availability.

“This is a red alert for child health. We are wit-nessing the largest sustained drop in childhood im-munization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “While a pandemic hangover was expected last year as a result of COVID-19 disruptions and lockdowns, what we are seeing now is a continued decline. COVID-19 is not an excuse. We need immunization catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more out-breaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems.”

18 million of the 25 million children did not re-ceive a single dose of DTP during the year, the vast majority of whom live in low- and middle-income countries, with India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines recording the highest numbers. Among countries1 with the largest relative increases in the number of children who did not receive a single vaccine between 2019 and 2021 are Myanmar and Mozambique.

Globally, over a quarter of the coverage of HPV vaccines that was achieved in 2019 has been lost. This has grave consequences for the health of women and girls, as global coverage of the first dose of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is only 15%, despite the first vaccines being licensed over 15 years ago.

It was hoped that 2021 would be a year of re-covery during which strained immunization pro-grammes would rebuild and the cohort of children missed in 2020 would be caught-up. Instead, DTP3 coverage was set back to its lowest level since 2008 which, along with declines in coverage for other basic vaccines, pushed the world off-track to meet global goals, including the immunization indicator for the Sustainable Development Goals.

This historic backsliding in rates of immunization is happening against a backdrop of rapidly 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 convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis.

Vaccine coverage dropped in every region, with the East Asia and Pacific region recording the steepest reversal in DTP3 coverage, falling nine percentage points in just two years.

 

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