‘Red alert’ issued on global child health after drop in vaccinations

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Global health leaders issued a “red alert” on child health as they unveiled data showing the biggest sustained drop in childhood vaccinations in around 30 years.

The World Health Organization and Unicef, the children’s charity, said on Friday that the percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) fell 5 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81 per cent and was now back to its lowest level since 2008.

According to the bodies, this was due to the increasing number of children who live in conflict zones or other areas where it was more difficult to immunise. They also noted increased misinformation regarding vaccines as well as the disruption and diversion caused by Covid-19.

The coverage of vaccines fell in all regions, but the East Asia and Pacific regions saw the largest decline in DTP3 coverage. It dropped 9 percentage points in two years, they stated.

This data highlighted the rising threat from measles. In 2021, the percentage of children who received their first dose of measles vaccine fell to 81%, which is also the lowest level since 2008. Comparing to 2019, 6.7mn fewer children received a third dose. 3.5mn girls did not receive the HPV vaccine. This protects them against cervical cancer later on in their lives. They said that more than 25% of HPV vaccine coverage in 2019 was lost globally.

Unicef executive director Catherine Russell said: “This is a red alert for child health.” The world was witnessing “the largest sustained drop in childhood immunisation in a generation”, she said, and “the consequences will be measured in lives”.

These two bodies indicated that any hopes of 2021 being a year of recovery were shattered. Russell said that, while it had been expected that Covid-19 would cause a “pandemic hangover” last year, due to lockdowns and other disruptions caused by the disease, a continued decline was now evident.

She added: “Covid-19 is not an excuse. We need immunisation catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems.”

According to data, the vast majority of children not receiving protection were from poorer countries. 18 million children in 25mn didn’t receive DTP at all during the year. Most of these children were from low and middle income countries. India, Indonesia and Ethiopia had the highest percentages.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said tackling Covid-19 needed to go hand in hand with vaccinating for “killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhoea. It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both,” he added.

Health leaders warned that missed vaccines were a risk because of rising rates of severe malnutrition. This weakens immunity. “The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunisation gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis,” their report said.

They warned that “monumental efforts” would be required to reach universal levels of coverage and to prevent outbreaks. They said that measles and other diseases can be prevented by increasing vaccination rates.

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