Statement by UNICEF Regional Director Jean Gough on the disruption of immunization and basic health services due to the COVID-19 pandemic

26 March 2020
polio vaccine
UNICEF/UN0339989/Frank Dejongh

Kathmandu, 26 March 2020: “As also stated by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore, the COVID-19 pandemic is overstretching health services around the world as health workers are diverted to support the response.

“Physical distancing is leading parents to make the difficult decision to defer routine immunization.

“Medical goods are in short supply and supply chains are under historic strain due to transport disruptions. Flight cancellations and trade restrictions by countries have severely constrained access to essential medicines, including vaccines.

“As the pandemic progresses, critical life-saving services, including immunization, will likely be disrupted where they are sorely needed.

“At the greatest risk are children from the poorest families in countries affected by conflicts and natural disasters.

“In South Asia, thousands of children die every year from diseases that could have been prevented by vaccination. If the situation of COVID-19 leads more parents not to vaccinate their children, there is a substantial risk that many thousands more will die due to outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases. In South Asia, mass vaccination campaigns are being postponed - such as those against Measles and Rubella in Bangladesh, and against polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, it is crucial to find alternate solutions to continue normal immunization services based on local judgement and that parents continue to immunize their children.

“The message is clear: We must not allow lifesaving health interventions to fall victim to our efforts to address COVID-19.

“UNICEF is committed to supporting basic health care and immunization needs in the worst affected countries, and to doing so in a way that limits the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We are working hard to ensure adequate vaccine supplies are available in countries that need them. We are in close communication with global vaccine suppliers to ensure production is not disrupted and supply is managed in the best possible manner under these difficult circumstances. We are also providing greater support to governments to continue the supply of vaccines during this pandemic.

“In the days to come, governments may have to temporarily postpone preventive mass vaccination campaigns in many places to ensure that the delivery of immunization services does not contribute to COVID-19 spread, and to follow recommendations on physical distancing.

“UNICEF strongly recommends that all governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunization activities once the COVID -19 pandemic is under control. These vaccination activities must focus on children who will miss vaccine doses during this period of interruption and prioritize the poorest and most vulnerable children. To successfully roll-out vaccines against COVID -19 when they become available, we need to ensure that our immunization programmes remain robust and can reach those that will need these vaccines the most.

“Immunization remains a life-saving health intervention. As the world's biggest buyer and supplier of vaccines, UNICEF will continue to play a pivotal role in supporting governments’ current and future immunization efforts.”


Notes to editor:

Download multimedia content on COVID-19 outbreak, handwashing and vaccines here: https://uni.cf/2WydpEk

Media Contacts

Anne Sophie Bonefeld
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UNICEF South Asia
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UNICEF New York
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