Global vaccination coverage is on a sharp decline, according to a new report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The findings, published on Friday, show the biggest drop in coverage in 30 years, with levels reaching their lowest point since 2008.
According to the report, which uses vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (the DTP3 vaccine) as a baseline, the percentage of children in developing countries who have received three doses of this vaccine decreased by five percentage points between 2019 and 2021. To put that in perspective, this represents about 25 million children missing out on lifesaving vaccines in 2021.
"This is a red alert for child health," UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a statement. "We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives."
Although COVID-19 had already taken a significant toll on vaccine uptake, factors such as increased misinformation, pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, conflict, prolonged lockdowns, and resource gaps have exacerbated the problem. In remote areas, where access to care is challenging, health workers sometimes have to travel far distances to reach underserved populations.
While some countries — such as Uganda and Pakistan — maintained high levels of vaccine coverage through targeted efforts aimed at vulnerable populations and strong government commitment to immunization, others experienced steep declines in DTP3 coverage. East Asia and the Pacific region, for instance, saw a slide of nine percentage points over the last two years.
The situation is even more alarming when you consider that the world is grappling with a severe hunger crisis, with the number of children facing severe acute malnutrition on the rise, the report states. These children are at even greater risk of developing diseases that we know how to prevent. This includes diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, but also measles and polio, for which outbreaks have recently been reported in many parts of the world.
Beyond its potentially devastating impact on children, the backslide in vaccination coverage also puts the achievement of the Global Goals set by the United Nations in jeopardy.
Offsetting the problem and bringing vaccination coverage back up to adequate levels requires enhanced efforts — that's why, as part of the newly launched global Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030), the WHO, UNICEF, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are calling on world leaders to step up.
Strong political will and commitment are key to getting the job done — but so is the strengthening of public health systems. As the pandemic has shown, when health infrastructure is lacking or fragile, access to care becomes limited, putting lives at risk. IA2030 is calling on governments to find ways to build people-centered, trust-based strategies on the ground.
"It’s heartbreaking to see more children losing out on protection from preventable diseases for a second year in a row," Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement. "The priority of the Alliance must be to help countries to maintain, restore, and strengthen routine immunization alongside executing ambitious COVID-19 vaccination plans, not just through vaccines but also tailored structural support for the health systems that will administer them."