Vaccines - a shield to protect humanity against epidemics

The world is witnessing a historical setback when tens of millions of children are at risk of dangerous diseases due to missing standard vaccinations. If this trend is not reversed in time, the price to pay is not only serious economic and social losses but also the lives and future of those children.

Illustrative image (Photo: UNICEF)
Illustrative image (Photo: UNICEF)

Over the past decades, many children around the world have been protected from deadly diseases with basic vaccines. However, the achievements that mankind has worked hard for many years to accomplish are in danger of being reversed.

According to statistics recorded in 177 countries, and recently announced by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of children who did not have regular immunisation to prevent dangerous diseases such as diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus raised to about 25 million in 2021, an increase of six million children compared to the time before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell described the sharp drop in vaccine coverage as a protracted setback, affecting an entire generation and bringing vaccination rates back to the lowest level since the early 2000s.

Coverage rates of basic vaccines declined throughout all regions of the world, with East Asia and the Pacific reporting the largest declines. The number of unvaccinated children increased by 37% in the 2019 – 2021 period, making the number of children at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases likely to increase gradually in the future. It is worrisome that most of these children live in low- and middle-income countries.

According to scientists, children who are malnourished often have poor immune systems and are more likely to die from diseases. Rapidly increasing malnutrition rates, due to the current food crisis and inadequate immunisation have doubled the risk of children’s health in poorer countries.

The cause of the decline in coverage of basic vaccines is said to be a combination of many factors. Endless conflicts, a troubled world economy, and widespread misinformation about vaccines have derailed efforts to deploy a child-protective vaccination campaign. In addition, the strong outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic also overloaded the global health system, disrupting vaccination campaigns.

In recent years, low vaccine coverage has led to serious outbreaks of measles and polio in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and many other countries. The sudden increase in the number of cases, which can be prevented with vaccines, has raised alarm bells for governments and international organisations. Disruption of vaccination services not only has immediate impacts, but the consequences will last for decades to come.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell stressed that if vaccination is not accelerated, the cost will be very high, maybe the future or the lives of children. In addition, the world may experience more outbreaks of diseases, increasing the burden on the health system and leading to economic and social crises.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently warned that the COVID-19 pandemic “shows no signs of ending”. Many countries around the world are continuing to see new waves of COVID-19. In that context, WHO recommends implementing mass vaccination campaigns in parallel with efforts to prevent and control COVID-19.

Bringing essential vaccination campaigns back on track soon is an important requirement for the world to build a solid “shield” to protect children and also to protect humanity against the onslaught of diseases in the future.