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About 23 million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines last year, the World Health Organization and UNICEF said on Thursday, warning about a devastating consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic for routine health services.
The number was the highest since 2009, according to the organizations, and mostly affected children living in remote or deprived areas, highlighting the widening gaps in vaccine access that the pandemic has reinforced.
As some Western countries have recommended vaccinating children against the coronavirus, the W.H.O. and UNICEF warned that countless other children around the world were at risk because of a lack of routine immunizations against diseases like polio, measles and meningitis.
“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,” W.H.O.’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.
The number of children who did not receive their first vaccinations for preventable diseases increased in all regions, with the most significant disruptions reported in countries in Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.
India, which has faced one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, has been hit especially hard by the decline in vaccinations, according to data provided by the W.H.O. and UNICEF. More than three million children in India did not receive a first dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, known as DTP-1, in 2020, up from 1.4 million in 2019. That marked a troubling reversal for a country that had significantly increased the rate of childhood immunizations across its vast population in recent years, experts said.
Other countries with the greatest increases of children who missed immunizations include Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Mexico and Mozambique.
“These are alarming numbers, suggesting the pandemic is unraveling years of progress in routine immunization and exposing millions of children to deadly, preventable diseases,” said Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership that helps provide vaccines to developing countries.
Global vaccination rates for children against diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, and measles had already plateaued for years before the pandemic, the W.H.O. said. School closures and the redirection of resources to tackle Covid-19 further disrupted vaccine services, and fears of being infected with the coronavirus left people reluctant to bring their children for immunizations, the organizations added.
In addition to the disruptions in routine immunization efforts, mass vaccination campaigns for diseases such as measles, polio and yellow fever are currently postponed in more than 40 countries, putting millions of children at risk, the report said.
“This is a wake-up call,” Dr. Berkley said. “We cannot allow a legacy of Covid-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers.”