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UNICEF: 67 Million Children Miss Out on Vaccines Due to Coronavirus Disruptions

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The United Nations has said that disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have left some 67 million children completely or partially unvaccinated between 2019 and 2021 worldwide.

More than a decade of hard-won gains in routine immunization of children have eroded, says a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), adding that getting back on track will be difficult.

Of the 67 million children whose immunizations have been “severely disrupted,” UNICEF said Wednesday, 48 million have not received their full routine immunizations, indicating concerns about possible outbreaks of polio and measles.

Vaccine coverage fell among children in 112 countries and the proportion of children vaccinated worldwide fell five points to 81% – a low not seen since 2008. Africa and South Asia in particular have been hardest hit.

“It is alarming that the decline during the pandemic came at the end of a decade, when growth in childhood immunization was generally stagnant,” the report said.

Vaccines save 4.4 million lives each year, a figure that could jump by UN figures to 5.8 million by 2030 if its ambitious goals of “leaving no one behind” are met.

“Vaccines have played a really important role in allowing more children to live long, healthy lives,” Brian Kelly, the report’s editor-in-chief, told AFP. “Any drop at all in vaccination rates is worrying.”

Before the introduction of the vaccine in 1963, measles killed approximately 2.6 million people each year, most of them children. By 2021, that number has dropped to 128,000.

But between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of children vaccinated against measles decreased from 86% to 81%, and the number of cases doubled in 2022 compared to 2021.

Vaccine confidence declines

Kelly warned that the decline in vaccination rates could be exacerbated by other crises, from climate change to food insecurity.

“There is an increasing number of conflicts, economic recession in many countries, climate emergencies and so on,” he said. “All of this makes it difficult for health systems and countries to meet vaccination needs.”

UNICEF called on governments to “double their commitment to increased funding for immunization” with particular attention to accelerating vaccination efforts to “catch-up” for those who missed a vaccine dose.

The report also raised concerns about people’s low confidence in vaccines, seen in 52 of the 55 countries surveyed.

“We cannot allow confidence in routine immunization to become yet another casualty of the pandemic,” UNICEF Executive Director Katharine Russell said in a statement. “Otherwise, the next wave of deaths could be of more children with measles, diphtheria, or other preventable diseases.”

Confidence in a vaccine can be “volatile and time-bound,” the report said, noting that “further analysis is required to determine whether the findings indicate a long-term trend” beyond the pandemic.

Overall, he said, support for vaccines “remains relatively strong.”

In about half of the 55 countries surveyed, more than 80% of respondents thought that vaccinations are important for children.

“There is reason to be somewhat optimistic that services are recovering in a very small number of countries,” Kelly said, adding that preliminary vaccination data from 2022 showed encouraging signs.

But even getting the numbers back to pre-pandemic levels will take years, he said, not including reaching “children who went missing before the pandemic.”

“And they are not an insignificant number.”

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