• 80 million children under the age of one are at risk of getting deadly-but-preventable diseases like measles, polio and diptheria.
  • The transport of vaccines has been delayed due to the pandemic, and UNICEF is begging governments and the airline industry for help.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly erased years of international work around promoting routine vaccinations for children, warned the World Health Organization and UNICEF on Friday.

The agencies have joined forces to warn the public that 80 million children under the age of one are newly vulnerable to deadly-but-preventable diseases like measles, polio and diptheria.

As of May 15, 27 countries had postponed measles vaccination campaigns, 38 countries had postponed polio vaccine campaigns, and numerous other countries had postponed vaccination campaigns for diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and typhoid.

An analysis showed that out of 129 countries where immunization data was available, vaccination services have been paused in at least 68 countries. 53% of the countries reported moderate-to-severe disruptions, or a total halt of vaccinations.

"Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health," said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a press release. "Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles."

In wealthier countries, where residents have private insurance, children are vaccinated by their physicans during pre-made appointments. But in lower-income countries, like Cambodia and Nigeria, mass vaccinations are common. Children are brought to public areas like churches, schools, and marketplaces, where they stand in a line and wait to be vaccinated. With these programs paused, many children will not be vaccinated.

A medical worker prepares a measles vaccine on September 10, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand.
A medical worker prepares a measles vaccine on September 10, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand.
Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

This is the biggest drop in vaccine rates the world has seen since widespread immunizations began

Since the 70s, when many of these immunization programs began, this is the largest interruption of vaccination services there has ever been.

These lowered vaccination rates are due in part due to parents not wanting to leave home. Social distancing and shelter-in-place measures have been put in place around the world to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Other factors are at play, too, including the overworked healthcare system, with nurses and doctors re-deployed to other areas of medicine to help treat patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A lack of masks and other protective gear for healthcare workers means many are not able to treat non-COVID-19 patients, saving the gear for emergencies.

Even if they were able, travel restrictions limit families' abilities to go to a vaccination site or doctor's office.

"This is really alarming data that we're announcing today, putting numbers on the fact that we've been grappling with for months now," Seth Berkley, of the Vaccine Alliance, said in a WHO press conference on May 22. "The scale of the impact of COVID-19 is having on global immunization programs is something we haven't seen really in a lifetime."

Vaccine shipments are being delayed by the pandemic

With less commercial flights and limited charter flights available, there's been a large backlog in vaccine shipments. After March 22, UNICEF saw a 70% - 80% reduction in vaccine shipments, as the cost of shipping the vaccines went up at least 100% above normal rates.

"UNICEF is appealing to governments, the private sector, the airline industry, and others, to free up freight space at an affordable cost for these life-saving vaccines," UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said in a press conference. "Children's lives are at stake."

Campaigns to wipe polio and measles from the face of the earth had been nearing success. World health organizations had nearly achieved their goal, getting vaccinations to countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We cannot exchange one deadly outbreak for another," Henrietta Fore, of UNICEF, said at the May 22 WHO press conference. "We cannot afford to lose decades of health gains that everyone has worked so hard to achieve."

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