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A perfect storm

One significant impact of the raging Covid-19 pandemic is that it has disrupted access to routine vaccinations, leaving millions of children at risk from measles and other deadly diseases, leading the United Nations to warn of a brewing “perfect storm”.

Twenty-three million children missed out on basic childhood vaccines last year as routine health services were hit worldwide by restrictions aimed at controlling Covid-19 and many parents shunned clinics for fear of exposure to the virus.

The vaccination gap is the highest in over a decade and 3.7 million more than in 2019, according to data published by the World Health Organization and the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF.

The combination of the sharp decline in routine vaccinations and countries starting to relax restrictions even as the pandemic is far from over has the potential of not only driving up Covid transmission, but also allowing other vaccine-preventable diseases to also begin spreading. This is because the restrictions in many countries have until now also provided a buffer protecting unvaccinated children against exposure to childhood diseases they are now vulnerable to.

“In 2021, we have potentially a perfect storm about to happen,” Kate O’Brien, head of the WHO’s vaccines and immunization department, told reporters.

The recently published data revealed that rising numbers of children across all regions missed first vital vaccine doses last year while millions more missed later vaccines. Children missed first doses of the 3-dose diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine, as well as the measles vaccine. Furthermore, as many as 17 million children, mainly living in conflict-affected communities or in under-serviced remote areas, likely did not receive a single vaccine in 2020.

UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore added that even before Covid, “there were worrying signs that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight to immunize children against preventable child illness,” and noted “The pandemic has made a bad situation worse.”

The Philippines was among the countries noted as seeing the number of unprotected children rise significantly. The country is headed towards catastrophe if no urgent action is taken to address this brewing perfect storm.

The nationwide vaccination effort for Covid-19 provides an opportunity to use the resources and infrastructure that has been rolled out to manage this vaccination gap that needs to be addressed if we are going to avoid another outbreak just as we are still recovering from the ravages of the current pandemic.*

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