With mounting threat of COVID-19 increasing number of children at risk of not being vaccinated
KINSHASA, 27 April 2020 – As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), thousands of children may miss out on receiving life-saving vaccines.
Although children have been largely spared by the direct health impact of the virus, they will certainly be affected by their family’s delays in seeking healthcare. Parents must now weigh the risk of exposing themselves and their children to the virus against the benefits of vaccinating their children on time. In a country where only 35 per cent of children aged 12-23 months have received all the recommended early childhood vaccines, the consequences could be devastating (Source: MICS 2018).
Last year DRC experienced one of the world’s worst measles epidemics with more than 5,300 reported deaths. The deadly measles outbreak was the result of low vaccination coverage, as well as malnutrition in some communities, a weak and overburdened public health system, insecurity, and difficult access to health care, especially in rural areas.
Taking into account the difficult balance between stemming the spread of COVID-19 and averting deaths due to vaccine-preventable diseases, the Government of DRC has decided to keep vaccinating children and conducting campaigns across the country, all the while ensuring that health workers, caregivers and children are protected from COVID-19 infection. For example, in North Kivu province, where over 3,000 cases of measles were reported since 1 January, UNICEF is supporting the Government with vaccine supplies and protective equipment to continue immunization activities. In Ituri, a vaccination campaign is currently underway to vaccinate more than 53,000 children between 6 and 59 months against measles.
Despite these efforts, UNICEF warns that the number of unvaccinated children will increase over the next few months because some parents might avoid or delay going to health centres or because health services are already at full stretch containing a the COVID-19 pandemic. This could result in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses, some much more serious to children than COVID-19.
In this context, it is of vital importance that critical immunization services are protected, so that the gains made in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases are maintained. This includes sending critical vaccine supplies to immunize children and securing financing for immunization activities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how fast an outbreak can spread without a vaccine to protect people and communities. This is why it is more than ever important to ensure essential health services, including routine immunizations, are protected during the pandemic, to minimize the risk of further disease outbreaks and loss of life”, said Xavier Crespin, UNICEF’s Chief of Health in DRC.
UNICEF calls on the Government of DRC to continue routine immunization services where possible while ensuring the safety of parents and health workers, and to start rigorous planning now to intensify immunization programmes once the pandemic is under control to avoid outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. The agency urges international donors to commit generous multi-year support to the DRC’s immunization programmes.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.