An estimated 3.5 million children missed out on their first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis combined vaccine (DTP-1) in India in 2020, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Three million more children missed their first dose of the measles vaccination. Such were the effects of the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that health systems across the globe were thrown into disruption. Diseases such as polio, the closest disease worldwide to being eradicated, were threatening a resurgence as vaccination campaigns were suspended.
The DPT vaccine is a class of combination vaccines against three infectious diseases: diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. Globally, 23 million children missed out last year on vaccines such as DPT, measles and polio according to data from the WHO and the U.N. Children’s Fund.
“The data shows that middle-income countries now account for an increasing share of unprotected children – that is, children missing out on at least some vaccine doses. India is experiencing a particularly large drop, with DTP-3 coverage falling from 91 percent to 85 percent,” the WHO said in a statement.
India has ramped up its COVID-19 immunisation campaign. However, fears remain that this will be prioritised over other vaccination drives. The number of COVID-19 vaccinations administered in India has surpassed 39 crore, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This marks a great degree of progress in the vaccination campaign against COVID-19. However, in a country with a population exceeding one billion people, this is still just a fraction.
“The world has rightly prioritised the emergency response to COVID-19,” said Kate O’Brien, director of the Immunisation, Vaccines, and Biologicals Department at the WHO. “But if we fail to find a catch-up, and catch up those who have missed their vaccines, and restore and improve the essential immunisation programme, there is a serious risk of disease outbreaks that will continue to grow. We really cannot trade one crisis for another.”
“Even as countries clamour to get their hands on COVID-19 vaccines, we have gone backwards on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Multiple disease outbreaks would be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling COVID-19, making it more urgent than ever to invest in childhood vaccination and ensure every child is reached.”
Years of progress are on the verge of coming undone. This is true of a large number of diseases, not just those preventable through vaccination. As health systems were all but disabled through much of 2020, and have been so again during the peaks of the second wave, many individuals were unable to avail healthcare as hospitals and health centres were overwhelmed. With a third wave likely on the horizon, thought by some to be all but inevitable, India must prepare for the worst-case scenario and plan accordingly.