Childhood vaccination rates begin to recover after pandemic

By Jennifer Rigby

LONDON (Reuters) – Efforts to immunize children around the world against deadly diseases such as measles and diphtheria began to recover in 2022 after a historic setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

But the recovery remains uneven, with strong rebounds in large lower-middle-income countries such as India and Indonesia masking lingering problems in many smaller and poorer countries, the agencies said in a statement on Tuesday. .

In 2022, 20.5 million children did not receive one or more routine childhood vaccines, compared to 24.4 million children in 2021. Despite progress, the numbers are still higher than in 2019, when 18.4 million children were not fully protected.

The figures are estimated from 183 countries, using data based on taking the three-dose vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, and include children who have not received any vaccine as well as those who have missed one of the doses needed for protection.

Globally, coverage rates were 86% before the pandemic and 84% in 2022.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the figures were “encouraging”, but there were fears the most vulnerable were being left behind.

“When countries and regions lag behind, children pay the price,” he said.

Of the 73 countries that have seen substantial drops in routine coverage during the pandemic, 34 – including countries like Angola and Syria – have seen no improvement since or have even gotten worse. Fifteen were back to pre-pandemic levels and 24 were on the way to recovery, WHO and UNICEF said.

Agencies have also warned that measles vaccinations have not recovered as quickly, with 21.9 million children worldwide missing their first dose in 2022 – 2.7 million more than in 2019 – and 13 .3 million their second. In low-income countries, measles coverage rates actually continued to decline last year, to 66% from 67% in 2021, said WHO immunization chief Kate O’Brien. Measles outbreaks are already on the rise.

“When children aren’t vaccinated, it means they aren’t immune to life-threatening diseases,” O’Brien told Reuters in an interview. “Children are going to die.

Only HPV vaccination rates, which prevent cervical cancer, have returned to pre-pandemic levels. But they remain below the 90% target, at 67% in high-income countries and 55% in low- and middle-income countries where the vaccine has been introduced.

Along with Gavi, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners, WHO and UNICEF launched a campaign earlier this year to help countries catch up on childhood immunizations.

(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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