India is among one of the leading countries that failed to conduct its regular immunisation schedule for children during the COVID-19 pandemic, says a collaborative report by the WHO and UNICEF on vaccine coverage across the world.
As compared to 2019, around 3.5 million more children failed to receive their first shot of the DTP vaccine that protects against Diphtheria, Tetanus, and pertussis. Children are supposed to receive three doses of the same. India missed giving the first dose to 3 million children which the WHO identified as an area of concern.
Similarly, 3 million more children were not administered the measles vaccine in comparison to 2019.
Close to 23 million children across the world missed out on receiving their regular doses for immunisation against life-threatening diseases. This is the highest reduction in vaccine coverage since 2009.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted regular immunisation campaigns, undoing the progress that the world had achieved in the past 11 years. Furthermore, around 17 million children did not receive even a single dose of the various vaccines that fall under the umbrella of vaccines that newborns, infants, and children are supposed to receive to protect them from polio, measles,diarrhoea, hepatitis B, etc.
It is noteworthy that the African regions of WHO did not face a severe backslide in the proportion of vaccination. Instead, South East Asia, the Mediterranean as well as the Regions of Americas which were also adversely affected by SARS-CoV-2 showed the highest reduction.
Globally, the pandemic led to the postponing of 55 mass vaccination programs across 66 countries. Some countries had to use their existing vaccination equipment and cold storage for stockpiling the COVID-19 vaccine.
Owing to such a large number of children missing out on vaccines, Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, warned of a resurgence of preventable diseases.
"This is a wake-up call – we cannot allow a legacy of COVID-19 to be the resurgence of measles, polio and other killers. We all need to work together to help countries both defeat COVID-19, by ensuring global, equitable access to vaccines, and get routine immunization programmes back on track. The future health and wellbeing of millions of children and their communities across the globe depends on it, " Dr. Berkeley told the WHO.
The two international bodies marked that most of these children live in communities affected by conflict, in under-served remote places, or in informal or slum settings where they face multiple deprivations including limited access to basic health and key social services. All these factors will lead to increasing vaccine inequities that already exist as COVID-19 vaccines are still not equitably distributed.
The proportion of vaccination coverage in children against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles and polio had stalled for several years at around 86 per cent even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO intends to globally achieve 95 per cent childhood vaccination by 2030 and now believes that if countries do not regulate routine immunisation and health services, this goal will be more difficult to achieve.
The WHO, UNICEF, and GAVI have collectively asked countries to focus on restoring routine immunisation services, train health workers to reduce misinformation and hesitancy, addressing the gaps in coverage, planning COVID-19 vaccine independently, as well as preparing for outbreaks of any of these preventable diseases due to the vaccines being missed.
How Has India Fared?
Along with managing the COVID-19 vaccination, India runs the Mission Indradhanush to ensure that its Universal Immunisation Programme is achieved. Children receive vaccine as per the immunisation schedule which includes the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis, the pentavalent vaccine against DTP, Hep B and influenza, Polio against polio, and the measles vaccine against measles.
The Health Management Information System of the National Health Mission showed that close to 100,000 children had missed their first doses in March 2020. This even when the Health Ministry insisted that routine immunisation would not be affected in the country.
The WHO data reflects these findings as India witnessed a decrease in routine immunisation between 2019 and 2020. India's routine childhood coverage witnessed a decrease in the coverage of all the major vaccines for preventable diseases.