Communities vulnerable without immunization against infectious diseases

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PUTRAJAYA, 24 April – The COVID-19 pandemic reveals what is at stake, and how fast an outbreak can spread,when communities do not have the protective shield of immunization against an infectious disease, according to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Malaysia statement today.

The statement said while no vaccine existed yet for COVID-19, the world had effective and safe vaccines for other serious and highly contagious diseases like measles, polio or diphtheria. While taking appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we must make efforts, where possible, to ensure that children are up-to-date with their vaccination schedule.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic is overstretching health systems. Health workers are being diverted to support the outbreak response, putting them at risk of illness and death. And the longer the pandemic continues, the more that essential health services, including vaccination services are disrupted.

Polio immunization campaign, interrupted

In February, the Ministry of Health of Malaysia received 2.5 million doses of polio vaccine that will be delivered to over 1 million children below 13 years old in Sabah state as part of their targeted polio immunization campaign following an outbreak of the disease.

This polio immunization campaign has been interrupted, in compliance with the national movement control order (MCO), but it is crucial that efforts are made to resume and strengthen immunization activities as soon as physical distancing measures are lifted.

“There are many impacts of COVID-19, including the possible resurgence of diseases that can be prevented with safe and effective vaccines,” said Dr Lo Ying-Ru, WHO Representative for Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore. It is essential to ensure access to immunization services during COVID-19, and all parents to continue to bring their children to be fully vaccinated against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

WHO guidelines urge countries to prioritize the continuation of routine immunization of children in essential service delivery, as well as vaccinations for groups most at risk. If immunization services must be suspended, urgent catch-up vaccinations should be rescheduled as soon as possible, prioritizing those most at risk.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout has been a painful lesson in making vaccines universally available for all – to stop the spread and to prevent further outbreaks. The poorest and most marginalized children who need immunization the most continue to be the least likely to get it. Most of the unvaccinated children live in remote rural locations or with undocumented, refugee, migrant or stateless families. Disease does not discriminate, and neither should interventions. Every child, no matter their status, has the right to be immunized,” said Marianne Clark-Hattingh, UNICEF Representative in Malaysia.

Too many people are still excluded from the benefits of vaccines 

“World Immunization Week 2020 comes at a difficult time as we grapple to contain and fight the COVID-19 virus. However, we must keep in mind the need for routine immunization for other diseases such as polio and measles. Immunization saves millions of lives every year and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective health interventions. It is crucial that we continue the fight against these other diseases,” said Stefan Priesner, UN Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world had made immense progress in ensuring that children are vaccinated. In 2018, 86 per cent 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 per cent in 2000 and 20 per cent in 1980. The number of children paralyzed by polio has been reduced by 99.9 per cent worldwide.

Yet, global vaccination coverage is still far from the 95 per cent coverage needed to fully protect communities against outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Roughly, 13 million of the children have never received any vaccines, putting them and their communities at risk of disease and death.

Measles continues to remain an ever-present threat, especially if vaccination rates drops. Current projections indicate that as many as 800,000 people may have been infected with the disease in 2019. In 2020 there are increasing concerns about another resurgence, especially if vaccination rates fall due to delay or suspension of scheduled immunization activities as a result of COVID-19.

BERNAMA