Joint statement: European Immunisation Week 2023 and beyond
Catching up and setting the stage for resilient and more equitable immunization systems
Geneva, Brussels, Copenhagen, 24 April 2023 – Following three years with COVID-19, we are transitioning into a new normal and building on many lessons learned to create resilient health systems and stronger outbreak preparedness. Among these lessons is the powerful strength of collaboration, without which we cannot equitably reach everyone with life-saving vaccines.
As we mark European Immunization Week, UNICEF, WHO and the European Commission alongside other regional and local stakeholders are committed to continue working to protect the most vulnerable through COVID-19 vaccination. Together we will continue our support to countries to ensure children and families have timely access to routine vaccinations and catch up on any missed doses, all of which are essential to prevent the return of highly contagious vaccine-preventable diseases.
COVID-19 placed huge new demands on health systems and exposed existing shortages within the health workforce. Lockdowns and the fear of contracting COVID-19 while visiting health-care facilities led some families to put off vaccinating their children. Across 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia – together making up the European Region of WHO - over 1 million children missed all or some routine vaccinations since the start of the pandemic in 2020. While many of the countries in the Region quickly recovered with great effort from disruptions and delays to routine vaccinations, 16 countries saw a decline in coverage for the third dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic rates. Half of the Region’s 20 middle-income countries reported coverage below 90% for one or more vaccines in 2021, compared to less than 10% of high-income countries, which is widening the immunization equity gap among countries and their populations.
War in Ukraine and earthquakes in Türkiye have caused further disruptions to health services, displaced millions of families, and made access to life-saving vaccines much harder.
Vaccination is a cornerstone of public health. Every dose in the national immunisation schedule is timed to build or sustain protection from one or more diseases. Every missed or delayed dose puts a child at greater risk of infection. This can be particularly dangerous for young children and the most vulnerable in our communities. The more children who fall behind, the greater the risk of large outbreaks of measles, polio, diphtheria and other dangerous infectious diseases. Cases of measles in the European Region increased almost six-fold in a reporting year, up from 159 in 2021 to more than 900 in 2022. Cases of diphtheria increased seven-fold from 41 in 2021 to 300 in 2022. Detections of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses were also reported in 2022 in Israel and the United Kingdom. It is in our common interest to protect each other from disease; critical to this is keeping up with national vaccine schedules, including by receiving all the recommended doses and boosters, and catching up on any that have been missed.
As we continue to support countries to build resilient public health systems and infrastructures, let us remember that we have a strong foundation of public health accomplishments to preserve and build upon. Working together to bring the world closer to eradicating polio and eliminating measles, rubella, cervical and other cancers from the Region through vaccination, we will ensure better health for all and contribute to our joint commitment to regional and global health security.
Ms Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia
Ms Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety
Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
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.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit https://www.unicef.org/eca/.