Globally, millions of children are at risk of contracting measles, diphtheria, and polio as countries suspend national immunization programs as a means of reducing the transmission risk of COVID-19.
Most countries have halted mass polio campaigns and 25 countries have postponed mass measles campaigns, according to UNICEF.
Prior to COVID-19, measles, polio, and other vaccines were already out of reach for 20 million children below the age of 1 every year. In light of the newfound disruptions in immunization programs, UNICEF is concerned that life-saving immunization progress will not only be stunted — but that it could actually be reversed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already noted an impact on immunization initiatives.
"Prevention services for other infectious diseases and immunization campaigns have been put on hold or shut down in some countries, because of COVID-19," Tarik Jasarevic, WHO spokesperson, told Global Citizen.
The decrease in immunization rates during COVID-19 is not something that is unique to developing countries, either. In the United States, to avoid COVID-19 exposure, parents are canceling critical "well-child" checkups in which routine vaccines are administered.
"CDC has received reports that delivery of immunization services has been impacted by the societal disruptions and burden on the health care system caused by COVID-19," Melinda Wharton, director of the Immunization Services Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a statement shared with Global Citizen.
CDC is now examining the dangerous ramifications this is having nationwide.
"The stakes have never been higher. As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, our life-saving work to provide children with vaccines is critical," Robin Nandy, UNICEF principal adviser and chief of immunization, said in a statement. "With disruptions in immunization services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fates of millions of young lives hang in the balance."
"The pandemic is already disrupting routine immunization services in Gavi-supported countries, affecting vaccine supply, as well as planned introductions and campaigns, leaving populations more vulnerable to a wide range of deadly diseases in the future," Gavi’s Managing Director of Country Programs Thabani Maphosa told Global Citizen.
The Dangers of Redirected Funding and Resources During a Pandemic
In response to the pandemic, organizations have redirected funding to help strengthen and prepare health care systems in low-income countries through delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE), surveillance and training, as well as diagnostic testing.
"The Alliance is providing grant flexibility to Gavi countries, allowing for reallocation of funds to ensure that more fragile health systems are not left behind," Maphosa at Gavi told Global Citizen.
Nearly 30 Gavi-supported countries have accessed or begun the process of accessing funding for COVID-19 preparedness and response through this initiative.
We have made US$ 40 million available to @UNICEF to secure personal protective equipment (PPE), diagnostic tests and other vital supplies on behalf of 58 low and lower middle-income countries as they respond to #COVID19. Read more here: https://t.co/Whs3UR6OLc— Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (@gavi) April 28, 2020
While the world’s focus is directed at developing and testing a new COVID-19 vaccine, UNICEF, along with Gavi and a global health partnership called the Measles and Rubella Initiative, stress that these redirected funds could prove to be detrimental if they are not replenished and other immunization efforts are not upheld.
Jasarevic warns that the pause in funding to the WHO from the US will affect core funding for specific areas, such as child immunization, which could trigger the resurgence of preventable diseases.
"Disruption of immunization services, even for brief periods, will result in increased numbers of susceptible individuals and raise the likelihood of outbreak-prone vaccine preventable diseases, such as measles," Jasarevic said.
Maphosa explains that there is a troubling and recent precedent of this scenario that played out during the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"While Ebola deaths were high, an outbreak of measles (a completely preventable disease) killed 2.5 times as many people because resources were diverted from routine immunisation services," he said.
He fears a comparable and tragic setback could lay ahead in the fight against COVID-19.
"Without adequate support, developing countries will face a double penalty: the effect of COVID-19 and the very real possibility of multiple and concurrent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, increasing deaths among children who are missing critical immunizations," Maphosa said.
These organizations insist on ramping up vaccinations for every missed child when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. To do so, funding for Gavi must be fully restored.
"The legacy of COVID-19 must not include the global resurgence of other killers like measles and polio," Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi’s CEO, said in a statement.