UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued an urgent call to action to avert major measles and polio epidemics as COVID-19 continues to disrupt immunization services worldwide, leaving millions of vulnerable children at heightened risk of preventable childhood diseases.
The two organizations estimate that US$655 million (US$400 million for polio and US$255 million for measles) are needed to address dangerous immunity gaps in non-Gavi eligible countries and target age groups.
According to WHO and UNICEF, immunization has brought wild poliovirus to the brink of eradication and led to a dramatic decline in measles worldwide. During 2000-2018, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 23.2 million deaths, making measles vaccine one of the best buys in public health; 83 countries have been certified free of measles. Over 18 million people are estimated walking today who would have been paralyzed without polio vaccination. In August 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region was certified free of wild poliovirus, meaning that five of the six WHO regions – representing over 90% of the world’s population – have now eradicated wild poliovirus – a historic immunization success. That progress is threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the disruption of essential immunization services worldwide. Even when available, people are unable to access services because of lockdown and transport disruptions, or unwilling due to fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2.
This has resulted in plummeting uptake of vaccination in many countries, falling to as low as 50% in some countries during the crisis. Polio and measles vaccination campaigns, designed to fill gaps in essential services, were also paused to prevent possible infection of health workers and communities, while protection measures were put in place. The result of the pause is that more than 94 million children have missed out on measles vaccination alone. In July, WHO and UNICEF warned of this alarming decline in the number of children receiving vaccines around the world and called for vaccination to restart safely as soon as possible.