By Robin Gomes
South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots, the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, warned on Tuesday.
It said nearly a quarter of the world’s unimmunized or partially immunized children - about 4.5 million children - live in South Asia. Almost all of them, 97 per cent, live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
World Immunization Week
The warning comes during the April 24 to 30 World Immunization Week, which is marked annually in the last week of April. The aim of the week is to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease. Immunization saves millions of lives every year and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective health interventions.
Yet nearly 20 million children in the world today are not getting the vaccines they need.
Covid-19 disrupts vaccination, production
With lockdowns under the novel coronavirus emergency, UNICEF said, routine immunizations have been severely disrupted, and parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centres for routine vaccinations.
Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already appeared in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
The South Asia region is also home to two of the last polio endemic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to Paul Rutter, Regional Health Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA), “Vaccine stocks are running dangerously low in some countries of the region as supply chains have been disrupted with travel bans and cancelled flights.” “The manufacturing of the vaccines,” he said, “has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages.”
Post-pandemic - hasten vaccination
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge.
“As long as frontline health workers take the appropriate precautions, particularly washing their hands, there is no reason not to vaccinate – in fact, it is crucial that vaccination continues,” Rutter said.
Across South Asia, national mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed. Bangladesh and Nepal have postponed their national measles and rubella campaigns while Pakistan and Afghanistan have suspended their polio campaigns.
UNICEF strongly recommended that, where immunization campaigns are suspended, governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunization activities once the COVID -19 pandemic is under control. (Source: UNICEF)