A UN survey said 25 million children missed vaccinations to protect them from life-threatening diseases in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number was 2 million higher than in 2020.
Some 25 million children around the world failed to get routine vaccinations that protect against life-threatening diseases last year, as the pandemic disrupted global health care globally, according to a survey released Friday by UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
The numbers were calculated using data from the national health services of 177 countries.
The number of unvaccinated children was 2 million higher than in 2020 and 6 million higher than in the pre-pandemic year 2019.
"This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives," Catherine Russell, UNICEF executive director, said in a statement.
"While a pandemic hangover was expected last year as a result of COVID-19 disruptions and lockdowns, what we are seeing now is a continued decline. COVID-19 is not an excuse. We need immunization catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems," she added.
Child health crisis
Despite hopes that 2021 would see some ground recovered after the first year of the pandemic, the situation actually worsened. UNICEF said more focus on COVID immunization programs, as well as the economic slowdown and strain on health care systems across the globe had slowed routine vaccination efforts.
"I want to get across the urgency. This is a child health crisis," UNICEF's senior immunization specialist Niklas Danielsson told Reuters news agency.
Experts said this "historic backsliding" in vaccination coverage was especially disturbing since it was occurring as rates of severe malnutrition were rising. Malnourished children tend to have weaker immune systems, and infections like measles can often prove fatal to them.
Data showed coverage dropped in every region, which are estimated using data on the take-up of the three-dose diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) jab and include both children who get no jabs at all and those who miss out on any of the three doses necessary for protection. Globally, coverage fell from 86% to 81% last year.
The number of "zero-dose" children, who did not receive any vaccinations, rose by 37% between 2019 and 2021, from 13 to 18 million children mostly in low and middle-income countries, the data showed.
For many diseases, more than 90% of children need to be vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks.
There have been reports of rising cases of vaccine-preventable diseases in recent months, including a 400% rise in measles cases in Africa in 2022.
In 2021, 24.7 million children missed their first dose of the measles vaccine, and a further 14.7 million did not get the essential second dose, the data showed. Coverage was 81%, the lowest since 2008.
"The effects of what happens in one part of the world can ripple out to affect the whole globe. Whether we act on the basis of ethics or 'enlightened self interest,' we must put (children) top of our list of priorities," David Elliman, a consultant pediatrician at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in the UK unrelated to the study, told the AP news agency.