GENEVA — About 25 million children worldwide have missed routine vaccinations against common diseases like diphtheria, largely because the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted regular health services or sparked misinformation about vaccines, according to the UN
In a new report released on Friday, the World Health Organization and UNICEF said their figures show that 25 million children last year were not vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, a marker of childhood immunization coverage, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019.
“This is a red alert for children’s health,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.
“We are seeing the biggest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in a generation,” she said, adding that the consequences would be measured in lives lost.
The data showed that the vast majority of children who were not vaccinated lived in developing countries, namely Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines. While vaccination coverage has fallen in all regions of the world, the worst effects have been seen in East Asia and the Pacific.
Experts said this “historic decline” in vaccination coverage was particularly worrying because it was occurring as rates of severe malnutrition rose. Malnourished children generally have a weaker immune system and infections like measles can often kill them.
“The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization deficit threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis,” the UN said.
Scientists said low vaccination coverage rates have already led to preventable outbreaks of diseases like measles and polio. In March 2020, WHO and partners called on countries to suspend polio eradication efforts in the face of the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. There have since been dozens of polio epidemics in more than 30 countries.
“This is particularly tragic because tremendous progress has been made in the two decades before the COVID pandemic to improve childhood immunization rates around the world,” said Helen Bedford, professor of child health at the University. College London, which was unrelated to the UN report. She said the news was shocking but not surprising, noting that immunization services are often a “first casualty” of major social or economic disasters.
Dr David Elliman, consultant pediatrician at Britain’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, said it was essential to reverse the downward trend in childhood vaccination.
“The effects of what happens in one part of the world can reverberate around the world,” he said in a statement, noting the rapid spread of COVID-19 and, more recently, monkeypox. “Whether we act on the basis of ethics or ‘enlightened self-interest’, we must put (children) at the top of our priority list.”
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