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HealthGlobal issues

Millions of children missing out on routine vaccinations

July 15, 2021

Some 23 million children did not receive essential vaccines last year, as health services struggled worldwide with COVID-19. It marks the highest number in over a decade, according to UN data.

Bangladesh, child is vaccinated
The UN has reported an "alarming rise" in a lack of routine vaccine access for childrenImage: Hossain Chowdhury/AA/picture alliance

The UN warned of a "perfect storm" on Thursday as a raging pandemic continues to severely disrupt access to basic vaccines for millions of children.

Last year, some 23 million children missed out on routine inoculations for infections such as diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, as health care was hit worldwide by the coronavirus pandemic. The figure is an increase of 3.7 million from 2019, according to data published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

Up to 17 million children likely did not receive "a single vaccine" during the year, exposing major inequities in access, and representing "an alarming rise," UNICEF tweeted. India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico and Mali were among the countries worst affected.

UN calls for urgent action

And the UN said it may get even worse. "In 2021, we have potentially a perfect storm about to happen," Kate O'Brien, head of the WHO's vaccines and immunization department, told reporters.

She warned there was now "an accumulation of children who are not immune because they haven't received vaccines, and more and more transmission because of too early release of public health and social measures."

"This is the sort of perfect storm we're ringing the alarm bell about right now," O'Brien continued, stressing the WHO's "high concern about these very outbreak-prone diseases".

"We need to act now in order to protect these children."

Conflict and poverty increase the problem

Most of the children affected live in places hamstrung by conflict, in remote communities, or slums where they face multiple deprivations.

Parents were confronted with medical facilities that were closed or feared they would be infected with COVID-19 if they entered a health care environment.

The WHO's South-East Asian and Eastern Mediterranean regions were worst affected, according to the figures.

COVID-19 exacerbates the problem

However, as access to health services and immunization outreach were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children not receiving even their very first vaccinations increased in all regions, according to the data.

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF's executive director said: "Even before the pandemic, there were worrying signs that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight to immunize children against preventable child illness, including with the widespread measles outbreaks two years ago."

"The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. With the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines at the forefront of everyone's minds, we must remember that vaccine distribution has always been inequitable, but it does not have to be," she said in a statement.

jsi/aw (ADP, dpa)