(CMC) — Several health organisations are warning that children under the age of one in the Caribbean are at risk of contracting diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio because the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting life-saving immunisation services.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said this stark warning comes from the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, ahead of the Global Vaccine Summit on June 4.
On June 4, PAHO said world leaders will come together to help maintain immunisation programmes and mitigate the impact of the pandemic in lower-income countries.
PAHO said data collected by WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, indicate that the provision of routine immunisation services is “substantially hindered in at least 68 countries and is likely to affect approximately 80 million children under the age of one living in these countries”.
“Since March 2020, routine childhood immunisation services have been disrupted on a global scale that may be unprecedented since the inception of expanded programmes on immunisation in the 1970s,” PAHO said. “More than half (53 per cent) of the 129 countries where data were available reported moderate to severe disruptions, or a total suspension of vaccination services during March-April 2020.
“Immunisation is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general. “Disruption to immunisation programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.
“At the June 4 Global Vaccine Summit in London, donors will pledge their support to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to sustain and accelerate this life-saving work in some of the most vulnerable countries,” he added. “From the bottom of my heart, I urge donors to fully fund the alliance. These countries, these children especially, need vaccines, and they need Gavi.”
PAHO said that the reasons for disrupted services vary. It said some parents are reluctant to leave home because of restrictions on movement, lack of information, or because they fear infection with the new coronavirus.
Additionally, PAHO said many health workers are unavailable because of restrictions on travel, or redeployment to COVID-19 response duties, as well as a lack of protective equipment.
“More children in more countries are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history,” said Dr Seth Berkley, Gavi’s chief executive officer. “Due to COVID-19 this immense progress is now under threat, risking the resurgence of diseases like measles and polio. Not only will maintaining immunisation programmes 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.”
PAHO said transport delays of vaccines are exacerbating the situation.
UNICEF has reported a substantial delay in planned vaccine deliveries due to the lockdown measures, and the ensuing decline in commercial flights and limited availability of charters.
To help mitigate this, PAHO said UNICEF is appealing to governments, the private sector, the airline industry, and others to “free up freight space at an affordable cost for these life-saving vaccines”.
PAHO noted that Gavi recently signed an agreement with UNICEF to provide advance funding to cover increased freight costs for delivery of vaccines in light of the reduced number of commercial flights available for transport.
PAHO said WHO will this week issue new advice to countries on maintaining essential services during the pandemic, including recommendations on how to provide immunisations safely.
PAHO said many countries have “temporarily and justifiably suspended” preventive mass vaccination campaigns against diseases like cholera, measles, meningitis, polio, tetanus, typhoid, and yellow fever, due to risk of transmission and the need to maintain physical distancing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Measles and polio vaccination campaigns, in particular, have been badly hit, with measles campaigns suspended in 27 countries and polio campaigns put on hold in 38 countries,” PAHO said.
It said at least 24 million people in 21 Gavi-supported lower-income countries are at risk of missing out on vaccines against polio, measles, typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, rotavirus, HPV, meningitis A, and rubella due to postponed campaigns and introductions of new vaccines.
In late March, concerned that mass gatherings for vaccination campaigns would enflame transmission of COVID-19, WHO recommended countries that temporarily suspend preventive campaigns while assessments of risk and effective measures for reducing novel coronavirus transmission were established.
PAHO said WHO has since monitored the situation and has now issued advice to help Caribbean and other countries determine how and when to resume mass vaccination campaigns.