Press Release

COVID-19 pandemic fuels largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades

15 July 2022

  • WHO and UNICEF sound the alarm as new data shows global vaccination coverage continued to decline in 2021, with 25 million infants missing out on lifesaving vaccines.

GENEVA/NEW YORK,15 July 2022 – The largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in approximately 30 years has been recorded in official data published today by WHO and UNICEF.

The percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) – a marker for immunization coverage within and across countries – fell 5 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81 per cent.

As a result, 25 million children missed out on one or more doses of DTP through routine immunization services in 2021 alone. This is 2 million more than those who missed out in 2020 and 6 million more than in 2019. The decline was due to many factors including an increased number of children living in conflict and fragile settings where immunization access is often challenging, increased misinformation and COVID-19 related issues such as service and supply chain disruptions, resource diversion to response efforts, and containment measures that limited immunization service access and availability.

“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “While a pandemic hangover was expected last year as a result of COVID-19 disruptions and lockdowns, what we are seeing now is a continued decline. COVID-19 is not an excuse. We need immunization catch-ups for the missing millions or we will inevitably witness more outbreaks, more sick children and greater pressure on already strained health systems.”

18 million of the 25 million children did not receive a single dose of DTP during the year, the vast majority of whom live in low- and middle-income countries, with India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines recording the highest numbers.

It was hoped that 2021 would be a year of recovery during which strained immunization programmes would rebuild and the cohort of children missed in 2020 would be caught-up. Instead, DTP3 coverage was set back to its lowest level since 2008 which, along with declines in coverage for other basic vaccines, pushed the world off-track to meet global goals, including the immunization indicator for the Sustainable Development Goals.

This historic backsliding in rates of immunization is happening against a backdrop of rapidly rising rates of severe acute malnutrition. A malnourished child already has weakened immunity and missed vaccinations can mean common childhood illnesses quickly become lethal to them. The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis. 

“Planning and tackling COVID-19 should also go hand-in-hand with vaccinating for killer diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhea,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “It’s not a question of either/or, it’s possible to do both”.

Monumental efforts will be required to reach universal levels of coverage and to prevent outbreaks. Inadequate coverage levels have already resulted in avoidable outbreaks of measles and polio in the past 12 months, underscoring the vital role of immunization in keeping children, adolescents, adults, and societies healthy.

First dose measles coverage dropped to 81 per cent in 2021, also the lowest level since 2008. This meant 24.7 million children missed their first measles dose in 2021, 5.3 million more than in 2019. A further 14.7 million did not receive their needed second dose. Similarly, compared to 2019, 6.7 million more children missed the third dose of polio vaccine.

WHO and UNICEF are working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and other partners to deliver the global Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030), a strategy for all countries and relevant global partners to achieve set goals on preventing diseases through immunization and delivering vaccines to everyone, everywhere, at every age.

The IA2030 partners call on governments and relevant actors to:

  • Ensure political commitment from national governments and increase domestic resource allocation to strengthen and sustain immunization within PHC;
  • Intensify efforts for catch-up vaccination to address backsliding on routine immunization, and expand outreach services in underserved areas to reach missed children and implement campaigns to prevent outbreaks;
  • Implement evidence-based, people-centred, and tailored strategies to build trust in vaccines and immunization, counter misinformation and increase vaccine uptake particularly among vulnerable communities;
  • Prioritize health information and disease surveillance systems strengthening to provide the data and monitoring needed for programmes to have maximum impact

COVID-19 pandemic fuels largest continued backslide in vaccinations in three decades

Zara Sargsyan

Zara Sargsyan

UNICEF
Communication Specialist

UN entities involved in this initiative

UNICEF
United Nations Children’s Fund
WHO
World Health Organization

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