South Asia could face health emergency if children do not receive life-saving vaccine: UNICEF

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South Asia could face another health emergency if the unimmunised or partially immunised children in the region — nearly 4.5 million of whom live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, the UNICEF has warned.

Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already been seen in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, the UN Children’s Fund said.

“With lockdowns in place as a part of the novel coronavirus response, routine immunisations have been severely disrupted, and parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centres for routine jabs,” it said.

According to the UNICEF, almost a quarter of the world’s unimmunised or partially immunised children — about 4.5 million children — live in South Asia. Almost all of them, or 97 per cent, live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The South Asia region is also home to two of the last polio endemic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Vaccine stocks are running dangerously low in some countries of the region as supply chains have been disrupted with travel bans and cancelled flights. The manufacturing of the vaccines has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages,” Regional Health Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) Paul Rutter said.

Many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge, he said.

“As long as frontline health workers take the appropriate precautions, particularly washing their hands, there is no reason not to vaccinate in fact, it is crucial that vaccination continues,” Rutter said.

Across the region, national mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed. Bangladesh and Nepal have postponed their national measles and rubella campaigns while Pakistan and Afghanistan have suspended their polio campaigns.

UNICEF strongly recommends that, where immunisation campaigns are suspended, governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunisation activities once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

“We are very concerned about the impact of not getting children vaccinated,” UNICEF ROSA Director Jean Gough said.

“Many of these children are already vulnerable. While the COVID-19 virus does not appear to make many children seriously ill, the health of hundreds of thousands of children could be impacted by this disruption of regular immunisation services. This is a very serious threat. Early action is key,” Gough said.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF are urging governments to prevent devastating nutrition and health consequences for the 370 million children missing out on school meals as a result of school closures.

For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only food they will get in a day. WFP and UNICEF are working with governments to support children who are out of school during the crisis.

In 68 countries, governments and WFP are providing children with take-home rations, vouchers or cash transfers as an alternative to school meals. The two organisations are also calling for support as they set up to assist governments in the coming months to ensure that when schools reopen, school meals and other health and nutrition programmes resume.