UNICEF on Tuesday warned that South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots.
The Directorate General of Health Services in Bangladesh has issued guidelines to continue routine immunization during COVID-19 pandemic in line with UNICEF and WHO global and regional advisories.
The routine immunization sessions are continuing both in fixed and outreach sites as an essential service that combats disease outbreaks.
However, the number of immunization sessions performed has been substantially reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said the UNICEF.
Emphasizing the importance of building confidence among health workers and parents, Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Country Representative in Bangladesh, said they need to support and empower the health workers to protect themselves with frequent handwashing and other personal protection precautions so that they can continue their work.
“It is equally important to build trust in communities so that parents understand that with proper protective measures we can immunize their children safely.”
Almost a quarter of the world’s unimmunized or partially immunized children — about 4.5 million children — live in South Asia.Almost all of them, or 97 per cent, live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With lockdowns in place as a part of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) response, routine immunizations have been severely disrupted, and parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centers for routine jabs.
Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already been seen 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.
“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 has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages,” says Paul Rutter, Regional Health Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia.
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,” says Paul Rutter.
Across the region, 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.
In Bangladesh, the postponed measles and rubella campaign targets 34 million children aged from 9 months to 9 years.
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.
“We are very concerned about the impact of not getting children vaccinated,” says Jean Gough, Director of UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia.
“Many of these children are already vulnerable. While the COVID-19 virus does not appear to make many children seriously ill, the health of hundreds of thousands of children could be impacted by this disruption of regular immunization services. This is a very serious threat. Early action is key.”