Some 80 million babies around the world are at higher risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles, and polio as the coronavirus pandemic hinders routine vaccination programs, global health officials warned Friday.
Vaccine campaigns have been disrupted in at least 68 countries, according to data released by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Sabin Vaccine Institute, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The interruptions could affect 80 million children under 1 year old in those countries.
The agencies said that the disruptions are occurring at a scale unseen since widespread immunization campaigns began in the 1970s. The countries reported at least moderate interruptions to the programs, with some countries suspending their programs completely. The organizations said 27 countries have postponed campaigns of vaccinations that protect against measles, while more than a dozen have paused some polio vaccination programs.
“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said in a statement. “Disruption to immunization programs from the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”
The WHO said that it will provide countries with recommendations next week for how to continue vaccination programs safely.
Vaccinations have been disrupted for several reasons. Some parents are no longer taking children to clinics because of movement restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus or because they are scared about the risk of exposure to the virus. Health workers who provide vaccinations have also been diverted to help with the response to the pandemic. A lack of protective equipment means clinicians are reducing the number of people they treat.
Lockdowns and cutbacks in commercial flights have also led to delayed the delivery of some vaccines, leading Gavi to devote funding to ship vaccines around the world.
Officials stressed that keeping immunization programs up and running is crucial not just to prevent the diseases for which there are already vaccines, but because those same networks will be used to distribute vaccines for the coronavirus when available.
“More children in more countries are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history,” Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, said in a statement. “Due to Covid-19, this immense progress is now under threat, risking the resurgence of diseases like measles and polio. Not only will maintaining immunization programs prevent more outbreaks, it will also ensure we have the infrastructure we need to roll out an eventual Covid-19 vaccine on a global scale.”
Gavi is in the midst of raising $7.4 billion, which it says will help provide vaccines to 300 million children over the next five years.
In the United States, federal health officials reported earlier this month that routine vaccination of children dropped dramatically in March and April as a result of the coronavirus response. Pediatricians recommend that children still receive their inoculations, even amid the pandemic.