A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund shows that 67 million children missed out on one or more vaccinations between 2019 and 2021 because of lockdowns and health care disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the 67 million children who missed out on routine vaccination, 48 million didn’t receive a single routine vaccine, also known as “zero-dose”.
It said as of the end of 2021, India and Nigeria (both countries with very large birth cohorts) had the largest numbers of zero-dose children, while increases in the numbers of zero-dose children were especially notable in Myanmar and the Philippines.
The UNICEF warned that the public perception of the importance of vaccines for children declined during the COVID-19 pandemic in 52 out of 55 countries studied.
It said vaccination coverage levels are decreasing in 112 countries.
The report titled ‘The State of the World’s Children 2023: For Every Child, Vaccination’ reveals the perception of the importance of vaccines for children declined by more than a third in the Republic of Korea, Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Senegal and Japan after the start of the pandemic.
In the new data, collected by The Vaccine Confidence Project and published by UNICEF, China, India and Mexico were the only countries studied where the data indicates the perception of the importance of vaccines held firm or even improved.
In most countries, people under 35 and women were more likely to report less confidence about vaccines for children after the start of the pandemic.
The report said vaccine confidence is volatile, time specific and additional data collection and further analysis will be required to determine if the findings are indicative of a longer-term trend.
“Despite the falls, overall support for vaccines remains relatively strong. In almost half the 55 countries studied more than 80 per cent of respondents perceived vaccines as important for children.
“However, the report warns the confluence of several factors suggest the threat of vaccine hesitancy may be growing. These factors include uncertainty about the response to the pandemic, growing access to misleading information, declining trust in expertise, and political polarisation,” the UNICEF press statement read in part.
UNICEF Executive Director, Catherine Russell said at the height of the pandemic, scientists rapidly developed vaccines that saved countless lives. But despite this historic achievement, fear and disinformation about all types of vaccines circulated as widely as the virus itself.
“This data is a worrying warning signal. We cannot allow confidence in routine immunisations to become another victim of the pandemic. Otherwise, the next wave of deaths could be of more children with measles, diphtheria or other preventable diseases,” Russell noted.
The report said “The pandemic also exacerbated existing inequities. For far too many children, especially in the most marginalised communities, vaccination is still not available, accessible or affordable. Even before the pandemic, progress on vaccination had stalled for almost a decade as the world struggled to reach the most marginalised children.
“The children who are missing out live in the poorest, most remote and marginalised communities, at times impacted by conflict.”
New data produced for the report by the International Center for Equity in Health found that in the poorest households, one in five children are zero-dose, while in the wealthiest, it is just one in 20.
It found unvaccinated children often live in hard-to-reach communities such as rural areas or urban slums. They often have mothers who have not been able to go to school and who are given little say in family decisions. These challenges are greatest in low- and middle-income countries, where about one in 10 children in urban areas are zero dose and one in six in rural areas. In upper-middle-income countries, there is almost no gap between urban and rural children.
To address this child survival crisis, UNICEF is calling on governments to double-down on their commitment to increase financing for immunisation and to work with stakeholders to unlock available resources, including COVID-19 funds, to urgently implement and accelerate catch-up vaccination efforts to protect children and prevent disease outbreaks.
“Immunisations have saved millions of lives and protected communities from deadly disease outbreaks,” said Catherine Russell. “We know all too well that diseases do not respect borders. Routine immunisations and strong health systems are our best shot at preventing future pandemics, unnecessary deaths and suffering. With resources still available from the COVID-19 vaccination drive, now is the time to redirect those funds to strengthen immunisation services and invest in sustainable systems for every child.”