AFRICA – UN agencies have reported that nearly 23 million children missed out on routine vaccinations last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the highest number in more than a decade, fueling outbreaks of measles, polio and other preventable diseases.

Measles, one of the world’s most contagious diseases, can be fatal to children under the age of five, especially in African and Asian countries with weak health systems, according to the World Health Organization. Polio can cripple a child for life.

The gap in global vaccination coverage has set up a “perfect storm”, leaving more children vulnerable to infectious pathogens just as many countries ease COVID-19 restrictions, the WHO and U.N. Children’s Fund said in an annual report.

Nigeria is leading on the list of ten countries that account for the bulk of the 22.7 million children left unvaccinated or under-vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) in 2020, 3.7 million more than in 2019 and the most since 2009.

Concerningly, most of these, up to 17 million children, likely did not receive a single vaccine during the year, widening already immense inequities in vaccine access.

A vast majority of these children live in communities affected by conflict, in under-served remote places, or in informal or slum settings where they face multiple deprivations including limited access to basic health and key social services.

Even as countries clamor 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,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Large and disruptive outbreaks of measles have been recorded in hotspots including Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia and Yemen, the report added.

As countries work to recover lost ground due to COVID-19 related disruptions, UNICEF, WHO and partners like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are supporting efforts to strengthen immunization systems by:

Restoring services and vaccination campaigns so countries can safely deliver routine immunization programs during the COVID-19 pandemic;

Helping health workers and community leaders communicate actively with caregivers to explain the importance of vaccinations;

Rectifying gaps in immunization coverage, including identifying communities and people who have been missed during the pandemic.

Ensuring that COVID-19 vaccine delivery is independently planned for and financed and that it occurs alongside, and not at the cost of childhood vaccination services.

Implementing country plans to prevent and respond to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and strengthen immunization systems as part of COVID-19 recovery efforts.

The agencies are working with countries and partners to deliver the ambitious targets of the global Immunization Agenda 2030, which aims to achieve 90% coverage for essential childhood vaccines; halve the number of entirely unvaccinated, or ‘zero dose’ children, and increase the uptake of newer lifesaving vaccines such as rotavirus or pneumococcus in low and middle-income countries.