Missed vaccinations may make children worst victims of Covid

Reduced NGO funding a key hurdle in vaccinations

Society

November 29, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Missed vaccinations may make children worst victims of Covid

According to reports deaths caused by measles, mainly impacting children, rose 50 pc since 2016

Report about millions of missed vaccines for measles in 2019 foretells disaster awaiting children around the world as in 2020 vaccinations have been disrupted globally.

Earlier this month, an alarming report was published by the World Health Organisation and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report said that measles cases surged globally in 2019, reaching highest levels in 23 years, while deaths caused by the highly contagious disease mainly impacting children rose 50 pc since 2016.

The report said that while almost 870,000 fresh cases of measles were reported in 2019, the disease also claimed 207,500 deaths in the year, thus erasing almost two decades of efforts by the governments and children’s organisations to eliminate the disease. It blames a failure to vaccinate children on time as the main reason behind the slippage.

WHO and CDC highlight the need for the governments to increase their focus and efforts to eliminate the deadly viral infection. Scientists say that as against a minimum vaccination coverage of 95 pc needed to curb risk of infection spreading, the current vaccination rates remain far below the threshold of safety.

The findings are extremely worrying as they report data from last year when coronavirus was unheard of in most parts of the world and when life had not been disrupted as it has been since the global spread of the pandemic.

However, since the pandemic began and most countries went into a lockdown, it is bound to have seriously impacted immunization programmes around the world. This is due to several reasons. First is that the lockdown disrupted transport leading to challenges for the medical personnel to travel to work, at least in the initial period. Moreover, while hospitals may have managed to continue their operations, vaccinations all over the world are mainly carried out by NGOs and most of them were very severely hampered due to the lockdown. Several of them were forced to suspend their regular operations, while others worked with skeletal staff and that too was mainly deployed to help the governments and the hospitals in fighting the pandemic. The transport has also disrupted the distribution of vaccines to the places where immunization

Another significant challenge for the NGOs has been funding. Most NGOs are dependent upon government funding for their immunization programmes. But the pandemic has seen government budgets shrink and even the shrunken budgets have almost entirely been diverted either to boost their limited capacity for dealing with the massive and unprecedented rush of Covid-19 patients.

For several months now, NGOs working in the domain of immunization or fighting deadly infections like tuberculosis or polio have been calling upon the governments to ensure that while they battled coronavirus, they should not ignore vaccinations. However, with their entire focus on fighting the pandemic, governments around the world deployed all available hands in their healthcare system to counter the spread of coronavirus and as a result practically all other major healthcare programmes in every country have either been suspended or being carried out in a minimalistic manner.

As early as April experts said that within a period of three weeks, as many as 13.5 million children had missed out on vaccinations for diseases like polio, tuberculosis and measles. They warned that missed vaccinations could lead to disastrous results and significant setbacks in eradication of these illnesses. By April, as many as 23 nations had suspended their measles campaigns following the outbreak of the pandemic and as a result nearly 78 million children may have expected to have missed their vaccines during the year. By April, another 16 governments were yet to decide on the course of action on immunization.

By November, the numbers had risen even further. The WHO-CDC report says that even though the reported cases of measles this year are lower, efforts to control the pandemic have resulted in disruptions in vaccination and crippled efforts to prevent and minimize measles outbreaks. The report said that by November over 94 million children were at risk of missing vaccination as it had been stopped in 26 countries. This has already led to fresh outbreaks of measles in several countries and even now only 8 of the 26 nations where the measles vaccination had been paused have managed to resume them.

Though similar data is not yet available on other communicable illnesses like polio or tuberculosis, the situation is hardly likely to be encouraging. Each of these illnesses is a major killer by itself and millions either die or become seriously ill. Also, as most of these nations are poor and developing, an outbreak imposes extremely heavy burden on their healthcare systems that are already weak and overburdened.

Moreover, in these countries, children and especially infants in the poorer families are highly susceptible to other diseases such as dysentery that often turn fatal, even though they are easily treated. Even if the world manages to get a grip over the coronavirus pandemic next year, it is almost certain to be left struggling to cope with the unexpected side effects in the form of tuberculosis or measles.

The overstretched healthcare systems, especially in the developing nations, may not be able to cope with the rush of these infections. Outbreaks are also a good indicator of the poor coverage of the healthcare systems that may not be reaching the most vulnerable sections of the society. Especially because unlike coronavirus, which has afflicted rich and poor alike, illnesses like polio or TB mainly strike the poorer sections of the society.

Already, the poor are paying a hefty price for Covid-19, at least in terms of economic fallout as hundreds of millions have lost their jobs and find themselves pushed back years, if not decades, in economic development. A fresh outbreak of other illnesses is bound to extract a very heavy price. It may not be too late yet. But governments and international organisations need to act fast and in a concerted manner to ensure that the vaccination programmes not only restart and catch up with their yearly targets, but also plug the gaps that have stubbornly remained in their coverage. Only then can the world avoid another year of dramatic horror stories.

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