Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
As the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) disrupts routine vaccination efforts all over the world, at least 80 million children under one at risk of diseases such as diphtheria, measles and polio, according to the United Nations health agency.
“COVID-19 is disrupting life-saving immunization services around the world, putting millions of children – in rich and poor countries alike – at risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.
Data collected by the WHO, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Gavi and the Sabin Vaccine Institute showed that provision of routine immunization services is substantially hindered in at least 68 countries and is likely to affect approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 living in these countries.
Since March 2020, routine childhood immunization services have been disrupted on a global scale that may be unprecedented since the inception of expanded programs on immunization (EPI) in the 1970s.
“More than half (53%) of the 129 countries where data were available reported moderate-to-severe disruptions, or a total suspension of vaccination services during March-April 2020,” the WHO reports.
“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Disruption to immunization program from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”
The reasons for disrupted services vary. Some parents are reluctant to leave home because of restrictions on movement, lack of information or because they fear infection with the COVID-19 virus. And many health workers are unavailable because of restrictions on travel, or redeployment to COVID response duties, as well as a lack of protective equipment.
“More children in more countries are now protected against more vaccine-preventable diseases than at any point in history,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, chief executive officer of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “Due to COVID-19 this immense progress is now under threat, risking the resurgence of diseases like measles and polio.
“Not only will maintaining immunization programs prevent more outbreaks, it will also ensure we have the infrastructure we need to roll out an eventual COVID-19 vaccine on a global scale,” Dr. Berkley added.
Transport delays of vaccines are exacerbating the situation. UNICEF has reported a substantial delay in planned vaccine deliveries due to the lockdown measures and the ensuing decline in commercial flights and limited availability of charters.
To help mitigate this, 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.
Recently, Gavi signed an agreement with UNICEF to provide advance funding to cover increased freight costs for delivery of vaccines, in light of the reduced number of commercial flights available for transport.
“We cannot let our fight against one disease come at the expense of long-term progress in our fight against other diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “We have effective vaccines against measles, polio and cholera. While circumstances may require us to temporarily pause some immunization efforts, these immunizations must restart as soon as possible, or we risk exchanging one deadly outbreak for another.”
Many countries have temporarily and justifiably suspended preventive mass vaccination campaigns against diseases like cholera, measles, meningitis, polio, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever, due to risk of transmission and the need to maintain physical distancing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent diseases. “A vaccine helps the body’s immune system to recognize and fight pathogens like viruses and bacteria, which then keeps us safe from the diseases they cause,” the WHO explains.
Vaccines protect against more than 25 debilitating or life-threatening diseases, including measles, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis, influenza, tetanus, typhoid and cervical cancer.
Right now, scientists around the world are working on potential treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Several companies are working on antiviral drugs, some of which are already in use against other illnesses. Other companies are working on vaccines that could be used as a preventive measure against the disease.
Last May 14, Biopharmaceutical company Medicago announced that its vaccine candidate for COVID-19 “induced a positive antibody response only 10 days after a single dose in mice.”
“Though the precise dosage for the vaccine in humans is not yet determined, Medicago estimates its current facilities in Quebec (Canada) and North Carolina (United States) could produce up to 20 million and 100 million annual doses, respectively,” the company said in a news release.
Some health experts said that a vaccine against COVID-19 may take several months before it could be available for human use.
Until such vaccine be made available commercially, the time-tested measures against COVID-19 must be strictly observed. “Even though technological advances allow us to do certain things more quickly,” Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, was quoted as saying by healthline.com, “we still have to rely on social distancing, contact tracing, self-isolation, and other measures.” – ###