Around 23 million children worldwide may have missed out on getting childhood vaccines through routine immunisation programmes last year due to disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, report suggests.
Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) also indicates up to 17 million children may have not received a single vaccine in 2020.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said: “Even as countries clamour to get their hands on Covid-19 vaccines, we have gone backwards on other vaccinations, leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio or meningitis.
“Multiple disease outbreaks would be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling Covid-19, making it more urgent than ever to invest in childhood vaccination and ensure every child is reached.”
South-east Asian regions – such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico – were found to be the most affected and saw the greatest increase in children not receiving a first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis combined vaccine (DTP-1).
Globally, when compared with 2019, 3.5 million more children were found to miss their first dose of the DTP-1 jab, while three million more children did not have their first measles dose.
Before the pandemic, childhood vaccination rates against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles and polio had been at around 86% – a rate well below the 95% recommended by WHO to protect against measles.
Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said: “These are alarming numbers, suggesting the pandemic is unravelling years of progress in routine immunization and exposing millions of children to deadly, preventable diseases.
“This is a wake-up call – we cannot allow a legacy of Covid-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers.
“We all need to work together to help countries both defeat Covid-19, by ensuring global, equitable access to vaccines, and get routine immunisation programmes back on track.”
It comes as a new modelling study, published in The Lancet, also shows that childhood vaccination declined globally in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions.
The study, by the Washington-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), is based on country-reported administrative data for DTP and measles vaccines, supplemented by reports on electronic medical records and human movement data captured through anonymised tracking of mobile phones.
In the study, the researchers estimated that around 8.5 million third doses of DTP vaccine (DTP3) and 8.9 million first doses of measles vaccine were missed by children worldwide in 2020 — a relative decline of more than 7% over expected coverage levels had no pandemic occurred.
They also estimated that twice as many children may have missed doses of each vaccine than expected due to pandemic disruptions in high income countries in Central Europe.
The modelling study suggests missed doses of DTP3 may have risen from an expected 600,000 to an estimated 1.2 million in high income countries, while missed doses of measles increased from 700,000 to 1.5 million.
Lead author Kate Causey, a researcher at IHME, said: “Even before the pandemic, millions of children worldwide were not receiving doses of routine vaccines.
“Those numbers have declined dangerously since the pandemic, with coverage in 2020 falling to levels not seen for over a decade.
“Although vaccination rates are rebounding, simply returning to pre-pandemic levels of vaccine coverage will still leave millions of children at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases that pose a serious threat to their health and survival.”