The coronavirus pandemic has not only created a desperate need for a new vaccine, it also has put millions of young children at risk by disrupting routine vaccinations for preventable life-threatening illnesses.
A group of agencies led by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the GAVI Alliance and the Sabin Vaccine Institute announced on Friday that data they collected found that approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 across at least 68 countries have been hindered from receiving life-saving immunizations for illnesses like diptheria, measles and polio since the pandemic began.
While coronavirus deaths have been rare in young children, routine childhood immunization services have been disrupted since March on a global scale that is unprecedented since expanded immunization programs began in the 1970s, according to the WHO.
"We fear that COVID-19 is a health crisis that is quickly turning into a child rights crisis," UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said at an online press conference on Friday. "We cannot exchange one deadly outbreak for another."
Mass vaccination campaigns for measles and polio have been put on hold in 27 and 38 countries, respectively, according to the GAVI Alliance.
An additional 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the pandemic disrupts routine immunization services across the world, according to UNICEF.
"This is really alarming data," GAVI Alliance CEO and epidemiologist Dr. Seth Berkley said during the press conference. "The scale of the impact COVID-19 is having on global immunization programs is something we haven't seen really in a lifetime."
Berkley also cited modeling by The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that found that stopping routine immunizations to avoid spreading COVID-19 would mean that for every COVID-19 death prevented, there would be more than 100 deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases.
The data released by the WHO follows last month's statement by the Measles & Rubella Initiative, which said that 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on receiving the measles vaccine because of the “challenging period” created by the outbreak.
Pediatricians in the U.S. also have reported a drop in immunizations. During the week of April 12, the number of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots given to kids dropped by 40% compared to the week of Feb. 16 when COVID-19 was not yet widespread, according to PCC, a Vermont company that develops medical record software for pediatricians.
The agencies stressed that a global effort is required to continue the vaccinations because pathogens don't respect borders, so a country could have strong immunity but still be endangered if its neighbors have not been conducting vaccinations.
"Measles anywhere is measles everywhere," Dr. Kate O'Brien, director of WHO immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said at the press conference.
Routine vaccinations of children have been hindered by factors like the focus on physical distancing, health centers being overwhelmed, health workers being deployed to help COVID-19 patients and parents reluctant to take their children to vaccination sites out of fear of contracting the coronavirus or because their movement is limited by a government lockdown.
Deliveries of crucial vaccines have also been slowed because of the decline of commercial flights and government lockdown measures, according to Fore.
Many U.S. pediatricians have made changes regarding visits to their offices to help keep parents and children safe during the pandemic.
The agencies are calling for a concerted effort to get vaccinations back on track through countries focusing on tracking unvaccinated children, addressing the gaps in delivery of vaccines and using solutions that involve physical distancing at places like pharmacies or supermarkets. The WHO has also issued guidelines about how countries can maintain essential vaccination services during the pandemic.
"As the world comes together to develop a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19, we must not forget the dozens of life-saving vaccines that already exist and must continue to reach children everywhere," WHO director-general Dr. Tedras Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the press conference.