The World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have raised the alarm over a global decline in childhood vaccination in 2021, with 25 million children missing out on vital vaccines.
The WHO and UNICEF released official global vaccination data on Friday, July 15, showing that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the most significant drop in childhood vaccination in some 30 years.
The percentage of children who received three doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DPT3) vaccine decreased by five per cent between 2019 and 2021, reaching 81 per cent.
The DPT3 vaccine protects young children from all forms of respiratory diseases and other diseases considered a marker for vaccination at the national and international levels.
This means that in 2021 alone, 25 million children did not receive one or more doses of the DPT vaccine as part of routine immunisation services, which is two million more than in 2020 and six million more than in 2019, showing the increasing number of children exposed to preventable diseases.
Of these 25 million children, 18 million did not receive a single dose of the DPT vaccine during the year in which India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines reported the highest numbers.
“This is a red alert for children’s health. We are witnessing the largest continuous drop in childhood immunisation in a generation, resulting in loss of human life,” said Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF.
The vaccination data also explained several factors that contributed to the decline, including children living in vulnerable and conflict situations, where access to vaccination is often difficult, the increase in misinformation and problems related to COVID-19, such as disruptions to services and supply chains and limited access to and availability of vaccination services.
The data also showed that preventable outbreaks of measles and polio due to inadequate coverage levels have already been recorded in the last 12 months, stressing the importance of vaccination to preserve the health of children, adolescents, and adults.
Coverage of the first measles dose fell to 81 per cent in 2021, the lowest level since 2008. This development meant that 24.7 million children went without their first measles dose in 2021, 5.3 million more than in 2019.
Another 14.7 million did not receive the second dose they needed. Also, 6.7 million more children missed the third dose of the polio vaccine. In contrast, 3.5 million missed the first dose of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects girls against cervical cancer later in life.
It highlighted that even though the first vaccines were authorised more than 15 years ago, global coverage of the first dose of the vaccine HPV is only 15 per cent, and more than a quarter of the HPV vaccine coverage achieved in 2019 has been lost.
“2021 was expected to be a year of recovery in which vaccination programs would be re-established, and children left unvaccinated in 2020 would catch up,” Russell said.
“A malnourished child already has weakened immunity, and the fact that he or she has not received any vaccinations can mean that diseases common in childhood can quickly become fatal.”
WHO and UNICEF collaborate with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and other partners to deliver on the Immunisation Agenda 2030 (AI2030), a global strategy for all countries and relevant global partners to achieve established goals in disease prevention through vaccination and in the administration of vaccines to all people, everywhere and at all ages.
“It is heartbreaking to see children without protection from preventable diseases for the second year. The priority of the Alliance must be to help countries maintain, restore and strengthen routine vaccination,” said Dr Seth Berkley, Executive Director of Gavi, the Alliance for Vaccines.
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