The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have called for actions to avert major measles and polio epidemics as COVID-19 continues to disrupt immunisation services worldwide, including in Nigeria – leaving millions of vulnerable children worldwide at heightened risk of preventable childhood diseases.
According to a joint statement by UNICEF and WHO in Abuja, the Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated: “COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on health services and in particular immunization services, worldwide. But unlike with COVID, we have the tools and knowledge to stop diseases such as polio and measles. What we need are the resources and commitments to put these tools and knowledge into action. If we do that, children’s lives will be saved.”
The UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, added: “We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases. Addressing the global COVID-19 pandemic is critical. However, other deadly diseases also threaten the lives of millions of children in some of the poorest areas of the world.
“That is why today we are urgently calling for global action from country leaders, donors and partners. We need additional financial resources to safely resume vaccination campaigns and prioritize immunization systems that are critical to protect children and avert other epidemics besides COVID-19.”
The UNICEF noted in recent years, there has been a global resurgence of measles with ongoing outbreaks in all parts of the world. Vaccination coverage gaps have been further exacerbated in 2020 by COVID-19. In 2019, measles climbed to the highest number of new infections in more than two decades.
Nigeria remains at risk polio and measles outbreaks due to the inadequate improvements in increasing the routine immunization coverage in children receiving lifesaving vaccines.
Nigeria was declared free of the wild poliovirus in August 2020.
Measles also continues to be among leading cause of death and disability among children, with first dose of measles vaccination coverage of only 54 percent (NDHS 2018) in Nigeria. Nigeria is conducting supplemental immunizations to prevent outbreaks.
“Immunization is the best way to secure the future of our children. It is very safe, effective and available at all government health centres. All caregivers and parents need to ensure that their children are fully vaccinated and protected from childhood killer diseases – including ensuring that all doses are taken, so that the vaccine can be effective,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Nigeria Country Representative.
The WHO Country Representative, Walter Kazadi Mulombo, also said, “We must continue to engage traditional and religious institutions, as well as other key stakeholders at the community level, to stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus – and to address the continued threat of the vaccine-derived polio and other vaccine preventable disease outbreaks, including measles.”
Poliovirus transmission is expected to increase in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in many under-immunised areas of Africa, according to WHO and UNICEF. Failure to eradicate polio now would lead to global resurgence of the disease, resulting in as many as 200,000 new cases annually, within 10 years.
WHO and UNICEF estimate that US$655 million (US$400 million for polio and US$255 million for measles) are needed to address dangerous immunity gaps in non-Gavi eligible countries and target age groups.