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UNICEF, WHO concerned about disruption to common vaccinations for children

Disruptions to immunization programs across South Asia because of the coronavirus pandemic are upending attempts to vaccinate millions of children against deadly diseases, the United Nations’ children’s fund UNICEF warned on Tuesday.

The pandemic has interrupted vaccine supply chains and left families fearful of attending clinics, UNICEF said, creating another looming health crisis in a region where 4.5 million children were not fully immunized against diseases such as measles, diphtheria and polio.

“While the COVID-19 virus does not appear to make many children seriously ill, the health of hundreds of thousands of children could be impacted by this disruption of regular immunization services,” said Jean Gough, director of UNICEF’s South Asia office, in a statement. “This is a very serious threat.”

More than 1.5 million people die globally of diseases that could be prevented by vaccinations, according to UNICEF.

The UNICEF warning echoes a message Monday from the World Health Organization, which said the coronavirus pandemic is still disrupting normal health services, especially life-saving immunization for children in the poorest countries.

WHO expressed concern about rising numbers of cases and deaths in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and some Asian countries, even as the numbers flatten or decline in some wealthier countries.

A girl gets her finger marked after she is administered polio vaccine drops at a civil dispensary in Peshawar in July 2019. One health care worker in the Pakistani city predicted to Reuters that polio cases would increase because of the focus on the novel coronavirus. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters)

“We have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference in Geneva, adding that a second wave of infections could be prevented with the right actions.

Tedros expressed concern that the health of children was being threatened by the impact of the coronavirus emergency on vaccination programs for other diseases.

“Children may be at relatively low risk from severe disease and death from COVID-19 — the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus — but can be at high risk from other diseases that can be prevented with vaccines,” said Tedros.

Some 13 million people have been affected worldwide by delays in regular immunizations against diseases including polio, measles, cholera, yellow fever and meningitis, he said.

Shortages of vaccines against other diseases are being reported in 21 countries as a result of border restrictions and disruptions to travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Tedros said, citing the GAVI global vaccine alliance.

“The number of malaria cases in sub-Saharan Africa could double,” he said, referring to the potential impact of COVID-19 on regular malaria services. “That doesn’t have to happen, we are working with countries to support them.”

Concerns about polio increase in Pakistan

Pakistan, which along with Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s last polio outbreaks, has suspended its vaccination campaign against the crippling disease.

In one epicentre, the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, senior government officials and health workers told Reuters they were concerned about a possible rise in polio cases.

“We completely stopped our efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and missed two important campaigns so far,” said one official with the polio eradication program in Peshawar, adding he expected it would be months before the campaign could resume.

Globally polio cases have been cut by more than 99 per cent since 1988, but it remains endemic in Pakistan and Afghanistan. More than 100 people were infected in Pakistan in 2019, a resurgence from a record low global annual figure of 22 cases in 2017.

But since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 lung disease, workers have been reassigned.

“Since the polio campaign stopped … in February, we are tracing people arriving from overseas, those having symptoms similar to coronavirus and holding meetings with local residents and prayer leaders to ensure social distance in mosques,” said one worker in Peshawar.

“I am doing a completely different job…. I fear the number of polio cases will definitely rise after the coronavirus outbreak is over.”

Pakistan’s polio eradication program has long had to battle against rumours and social media campaigns claiming the vaccine is harmful to children, sending workers into communities to educate families on the benefits of immunization.

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