UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at the special press briefing with WHO and Gavi on the impact of COVID-19 on immunization

As prepared for delivery

26 April 2021

NEW YORK, 26 April 2021 – “This week is World Immunization Week. But effectively, this year has become World Immunization Year.

“Because after a year of lockdowns, empty classrooms, missed vaccinations, virtual birthday parties, and cancelled family dinners, people all over the world are now getting a COVID-19 vaccine or anxiously awaiting the moment when they will.

“Those of us in global development understand how important vaccines are. But this year, every single person on the planet knows it.

“Whether you’ve just had a tearful reunion with loved ones for the first time in over a year. Or you’re anxiously awaiting the moment when your turn will come. This year, more than any other, has reminded us that vaccines bring us together.

“But while COVID-19 vaccines represent our best hope of returning to “normal” lives, we need to remind ourselves that millions of children all over the world have no access to vaccines for any preventable diseases whatsoever. This is not a ‘normal’ to which we should return.

“Even before the pandemic, we were losing ground in the fight against preventable child illness. 20 million children were already missing out on critical vaccinations.

“And now, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still making up lost ground. While there has been progress from the peak of the global lockdowns, routine immunization services remained disrupted in 37 per cent of responding countries in the first quarter of 2021.

“Disruptions as a result of COVID-19 have made this problem worse.

“In 2020, UNICEF, the largest global procurer and supplier of vaccines, delivered 2.01 billion vaccine doses, down from 2.29 billion doses the previous year. Considering the unprecedented global lockdowns and their impact on supply delivery, this was a remarkable achievement.

“UNICEF also managed to deliver 912.7 million syringes for immunization and 10 million safety boxes to 83 countries. And we installed 18,340 cold fridges in health facilities in 25 countries. Another remarkable achievement.

“Over the past few months, we have repeatedly expressed our deep concern about the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. WHO said last week that of the over 890 million COVID-19 vaccine doses that have been administered globally, more than 81 per cent have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries.

“This is not only unfair — it is also unwise, because a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, especially with the worrying rise in variants.

“But for the people living in the countries where 20 million children are already missing out on life-saving vaccines, it is also unsurprising. Vaccines have always been inequitably distributed.

“Now is the time to change this. We can use this unique moment in time to spur long-term momentum towards finally achieving universal access to routine immunizations and broader primary health care.

“That’s why I am pleased to join my fellow panellists in launching Immunization Agenda 2030 – a comprehensive plan to maximize the impact of vaccination over the next decade.

“IA2030 is an ambitious global strategy to maximize the impact of vaccines. We’re aiming to save an estimated 50 million lives…to halve the number of children receiving zero vaccine doses…and to achieve 90% coverage for key vaccines over the next decade. 

“As part of our engagement in IA2030 and World Immunization Week, UNICEF is calling on governments to prioritize strengthening health systems in the poorest countries.

“We need to increase global and domestic investment to continue delivering vaccinations and other critical services for the most vulnerable children, and to guarantee universal, accessible and quality care for the long run.

“We call on governments to protect aid budgets and fulfil existing commitments, which support lifesaving child health services including routine immunization, nutrition and maternal health. 

“Donors should also increase investments in vaccine research and innovation, development, and delivery, focusing on the needs of the underserved.

“The pharmaceutical industry and scientists, working with governments and funders, should continue to accelerate vaccine research and development, ensure a continuous supply of affordable vaccines to meet global needs, and apply lessons from COVID-19 to other diseases.

“Finally, we need to take steps to make sure parents and caregivers trust health workers and heed their advice on vaccinating their children against preventable diseases.

“Later this week, UNICEF will be joining the Yale Institute for Global Health and Public Good Projects to announce a new initiative to equip country teams with tools to counter misinformation and mistrust related to all vaccines. We will be sure to make those details available soon.

“The stage is set for 2021 to be a pivotal year for immunization. Through COVAX and other global efforts to make COVID-19 vaccines available for all, we are embarking on an unprecedented global immunization campaign. But this campaign cannot come at the cost of childhood vaccinations. We cannot trade one global health crisis for another.

“In a year when vaccines are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must sustain this energy to accelerate efforts on all three fronts – providing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, catching up on missed vaccinations due to pandemic lockdowns, and critically, extending immunization efforts to all children currently missing out on vaccines entirely.

“We have no time to waste. Lost ground means lost lives. Thank you.”

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UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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