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Immunisation: UNICEF issues stark warning

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UNICEF has issued a stark warning about children missing out on vital vaccinations due to disruption to immunisation schedules as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots,” the agency warned. It went on to note that the region is home to approximately 4.5 million children who are only partially immunised or not immunised at all, translating to a quarter of the global total. Three countries are home to 97 percent of these children – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. 

“Vaccine stocks are running dangerously low in some countries of the region as supply chains have been disrupted with travel bans and cancelled flights,” said Paul Rutter, the Regional Health Advisor for the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia. “The manufacturing of the vaccines has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages.” UNICEF observes that due to quarantines – such as in India, where a full-scale lockdown has been imposed since late March – routine immunisation has been disrupted resulting in delays to children’s vaccination schedules. 

“Parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centers for routine jabs,” UNICEF explains. “Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already been seen in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal…many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge.” 

The release goes on to “strongly [recommend] that, where immunisation campaigns are suspended, governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunisation activities once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.”

UNICEF’s warning comes on the heels of an earlier statement which said, even before COVID-19, vaccines were “out of reach” for more than twenty million children under the age of one. In 2018, thirteen million children received no vaccinations. 

“The stakes have never been higher,” Robin Nandy, UNICEF Principal Advisor and Chief of Immunisation, warned at the time. “As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, our life-saving work to provide children with vaccines is critical. With disruptions in immunisation services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fates of millions of young lives hang in the balance.”

Going forward, it is imperative that the vital preventative measures health systems can take against other diseases are sustained. COVID-19 is a terrifying spectre of an infectious disease run rampant, spreading across borders at an alarming pace to become a global public health emergency unprecedented in living memory. Failure to immunise could very well engender another.

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