5.3 million children in South Asia missed out on essential vaccines due to COVID-19

By Laxman Datt Pant

5.3 million children in South Asia missed out on essential vaccines due to COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major reduction in childhood immunization in South Asia with more than 5.3 million children in 2020 missing essential vaccines normally provided through routine immunization services.

This is approximately 1.9 million more than in 2019 and the highest number of under-vaccinated children since 2014, representing a 6% drop in coverage of basic immunization from 2019 to 2020.

“Between 2019 and 2020, the South Asia region experienced a sharp decline in children receiving three doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine, falling from 90% to 84%. The percentage of children covered by three doses of the DTP3 vaccine had increased steadily from 6% in 1980 to a record high of 90% in 2019 in the region,” the WHO and UNICEF joint statement released on July 15 reads.

George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia said, “Nearly 4.4 million children are not even receiving a single dose of a vaccine that can protect them from deadly diseases, which is almost twice as many as the previous year.” This is a huge setback for children in South Asia as it puts their lives at risk and leads to unspeakable suffering, he commented.

Adding that COVID-19 related disruptions are not just affecting vaccination efforts but also other critical maternal and child health services, Laryea-Adjei called on South Asian governments to invest in essential maternal and child health services to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not succumb to preventable diseases while COVID-19 continues to rage on.

According to WHO and UNICEF:

  • The rates for DTP3 reduced by 9% in Nepal, 7% in Pakistan, 6% in India, 3% in Sri Lanka, and 2% in Bhutan and Afghanistan
  • India, the country hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, had the highest number of unprotected children worldwide at 3.5 million, an increase of 1.4 million
  • Pakistan had 1.3 million unprotected children in 2020, an increase of 0.4 million
  • At nearly 4.4 million, in 2020 the region recorded the highest number of children having failed to receive any routine vaccination in the past 10 years
  • More than 3 million of these zero-dose children in 2020 live in India
  • Coverage for the first dose of the measles vaccine fell from 92% in 2019 to 88% in 2020, below the 95% recommended by WHO to protect against measles.

In addition to disruptions to vaccination programs, other essential health services in South Asia also experienced severe disturbance in 2020. A study commissioned by UNICEF has estimated that in 2020, 228,000 children died as a result of disruptions to essential healthcare services in the region.

Prior to the pandemic, childhood vaccination rates against DTP3, measles, and polio had increased steadily for more than a decade in the region. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of the coronavirus, many health facilities were diverted to support the COVID-19 response. This resulted in the closure of health facilities or a reduction in services in some countries. In addition, some families delayed seeking healthcare because of safety fears.

The lengthy school closures across the region had significant ramifications for several other vaccines, i.e., HPV, which is critical for the achievement of the elimination of cervical cancer and is offered to children and adolescents while at school. The main causes of child deaths in South Asia remain diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea which are both preventable and treatable.