Timing is everything, as countries across the world wrestle with the task of easing social distancing measures with no COVID-19 vaccine in the horizon today marks the opening of World Immunisation Week.
Global health services are in a battle to contain the pandemic but have been issued a warning from the World Health Organisation not to shut down immunisation services for preventable diseases. It is concerned that the focus on COVID-19 risks triggering a resurgence of diseases that can be prevented with safe and effective vaccines.
The organisation explained when immunisation services are disrupted, even for brief periods during emergencies, the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, such as measles and polio, increase.
Last year’s deadly measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which took more than 6000 lives in a country already facing its largest Ebola outbreak, highlights the importance of maintaining essential health services, such as immunization in times of emergency. Further disease outbreaks will also overwhelm health systems already battling the impacts of COVID-19.
“Disease outbreaks must not remain a threat when we have safe and effective vaccines to protect us,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, (pic) WHO Director-General. “While the world strives to develop a new vaccine for COVID-19 at record speed, we must not risk losing the fight to protect everyone, everywhere against vaccine-preventable diseases. These diseases will come roaring back if we do not vaccinate.”
WHO said it is working with partners all over the world to accelerate research and development of a safe and effective vaccine and ensure equitable access for the billions of people who will need it.
But even with an expedited process, development of a vaccine for COVID-19 will take time.
“Precautionary measures are essential now to help keep us safe from disease, including diseases for which vaccines already protect children and adults,” it added. “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world had made immense progress in ensuring that children are vaccinated. In 2018, 86 percent of children under the age of five globally were vaccinated with three doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP3) and one dose of the measles vaccine, up from 72 percent in 2000 and 20 percent in 1980. The number of children paralyzed by polio has been reduced by 99.9 percent worldwide.
“Yet, global vaccination coverage is still far from the 95 per cent coverage needed to fully protect communities against outbreaks of this vaccine-preventable disease.”
The WHO added: “As the response to COVID-19 continues, countries must act now protect immunisation services, in order to further minimise disease outbreaks and loss of life.”