It’s been five months since COVID-19 started upending the lives of billions of people around the world, and we know for sure that its impact on children will last long and cut deep.
We fear that COVID-19 is a health crisis that is quickly turning into a child-rights crisis.
Three out of four children worldwide - or 1.8 billion children - live in countries with stay-at-home policies.
Schools are closed in 153 countries, leaving 1.2 billion students – or 70 per cent of learners – out of school.
Last week, using data from Johns Hopkins University, UNICEF said that an additional 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the pandemic continues to weaken health systems and disrupt routine services.
And today, UNICEF, WHO and Gavi are sounding the alarm about the impact that these disruptions are having on vital immunization services around the world. The figures are staggering:
At least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk because routine immunization services for young children have been substantially disrupted in 68 countries.
Vaccination campaigns (which seek to vaccinate large parts of the population in a short period of time) have also been badly hit, especially for measles and polio: Measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries and polio vaccination campaigns put on hold in 38 countries.
The consequences for children can be deadly.
There are many valid reasons why immunization efforts have been impacted:
Countries – justifiably – have had to suspend campaigns due to the need to maintain physical distancing.
Health centres have been overwhelmed with response efforts.
Health workers have been redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients.
Parents have been reluctant, or unable, to go to vaccination sites for fear of exposure to COVID or due to movement restrictions.
And there have been serious disruptions in supply chains and transport services. UNICEF has reported a substantial delay in planned vaccine deliveries due to the lockdown measures and the resulting decline in commercial flights and limited availability of charters.
However, we cannot let our fight against one disease come at the expense of long-term progress in our fight against other diseases.
We cannot exchange one deadly outbreak for another.
We cannot afford to lose the decades of health gains that everyone has worked so hard to achieve.
We need joint, concerted efforts to put vaccinations back on track. And there are many ways we can do this:
First, countries need to intensify their efforts to track unvaccinated children, so that the most vulnerable populations are vaccinated as soon as it becomes possible to do so.
Second, we need to address gaps in vaccine delivery. UNICEF is working with our offices around the world, freight forwarders and partner organisations to prioritise shipments and arrange charter operations as required for delivery of emergency and critical supplies. We have also appealed to governments, the private sector, the airline industry, and others, to free up freight space at an affordable cost for humanitarian supplies including life-saving vaccines. A special thanks to Gavi who made at least US$ 40 million available to UNICEF to secure vital supplies, including vaccines and personal protective equipment on behalf of 58 low and lower-middle-income countries as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, we need to look for innovative solutions to keep vaccinations going. And some countries are already leading the way. Uganda, for example, is ensuring that immunization services continue along with other essential health services, even funding transportation to ensure outreach activities.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is conducting routine immunization in fixed sites with physical distancing measures in place. In other countries, vaccinations are being delivered in pharmacies, cars, supermarkets while incorporating physical distancing in their delivery.
Fourth, vaccines need to be affordable and accessible to those who need them the most.
And last, we need to make sure we have the resources to do all of this. This is a significant undertaking that requires generosity and commitment. We know only too well that when it comes to some of these diseases, no child is safe until every child is safe. Ahead of the Gavi replenishment conference in June, the call for additional funding cannot be timelier.