Despite the global push to revive childhood vaccination campaigns for diseases like measles and diphtheria after the setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of the world’s most vulnerable children continue to miss out on life-saving vaccines.
Recent figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed a concerning reality that demands urgent attention.
In 2022, around 20.5 million children were deprived of one or more routine childhood vaccines, showing some improvement from the 24.4 million recorded in 2021. However, the figure has remained distressingly higher than the 2019 statistics, which showed 18.4 million children without full protection, according to Reuters.
While efforts to recover vaccination rates have made strides, the progress remained uneven, with countries like India and Indonesia experiencing significant bouncebacks, masking the ongoing challenges faced by many smaller and economically disadvantaged nations. The WHO and UNICEF, in a joint statement released on Tuesday, expressed deep concern over the growing disparity.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the encouraging developments but emphasized the plight of the most vulnerable children left behind in this process. He stressed that when certain countries or regions lag in vaccination efforts, it is the innocent children who bear the brunt of the consequences.
The joint report highlighted that during the pandemic, 73 countries witnessed substantial declines in routine vaccination coverage. Among these, 34 nations, including struggling countries like Angola and Syria, have shown no signs of improvement or have even experienced a worsening situation. In contrast, 15 countries have managed to return to pre-pandemic vaccination levels, and 24 are making steady progress on the path to recovery.
Of particular concern is the sluggish recovery of measles vaccinations. Shockingly, in 2022, approximately 21.9 million children globally missed their first dose, marking an alarming increase of 2.7 million compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Additionally, 13.3 million children missed their second dose, setting the stage for potential measles outbreaks.
Kate O’Brien, WHO’s head of immunization, expressed grave concern over the impact of this lag in measles vaccinations. She emphasized that when children are not vaccinated, they remain vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, leading to potentially devastating outcomes.
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Another area where progress is lacking is in HPV vaccinations, designed to prevent cervical cancer. While the rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels, they continue to fall below the 90% target. In high-income countries, HPV vaccination coverage stands at 67%, while in low and middle-income countries where the vaccine has been introduced, it is only at 55%.
In response to the growing disparities and to protect the most vulnerable children, the WHO and UNICEF, in collaboration with partners such as Gavi and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, initiated a crucial effort earlier this year to facilitate countries in catching up on childhood vaccinations. The joint efforts aim to bridge the gap and safeguard millions of children from preventable, life-threatening diseases, ensuring that no child is left behind in the quest for global health and well-being.