Coronavirus: Resume regular immunisation

Coronavirus: Resume regular immunisation

Representative image.

The COVID-19 pandemic could have staggering implications for the world’s battles against a host of other diseases. It could trigger a spike in the number of cases of measles and polio worldwide, with India being particularly vulnerable. Lockdowns have disrupted medical supply lines. Fear of contracting COVID-19 is preventing people from taking their children to health centres and hospitals for immunisation. With their health facilities under pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries have postponed immunisation campaigns. According to UNICEF, over 117 million children in 37 countries have missed out on receiving the measles vaccine over the past month. Some 26 countries have postponed their measles immunisation campaigns to prevent a further spread of COVID-19 and more will join them in the coming weeks. Worryingly, many of the countries that have paused their scheduled immunisation activities are already grappling with serious outbreaks of measles.

The deferring of immunisation will increase their burden of measles cases significantly. Caused by a highly contagious virus, measles can result in blindness, pneumonia and even death. As for the polio virus, which largely strikes children below the age of five, it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis. The fight against these diseases hasn’t been easy. Global, national and local organisations and health workers have slogged for decades to eradicate these diseases through immunisation. India, once a hotbed of polio, was certified polio-free in March 2014. Polio has been eradicated from much of the world. These hard-earned gains could be reversed with immunisation on hold.

Even before the onset of COVID-19, the incidence of several diseases that are preventable through immunisation was increasing. A safe and effective vaccine against measles has existed for several decades. Yet, measles cases surged in 2018, claiming the lives of 140,000 children and babies worldwide. These numbers can be expected to surge in the coming months. South Asia is highly vulnerable. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 4.5 million of the region’s children had missed out on routine immunisation.

Global health bodies and national government have had to make a difficult choice. The decision to put immunisation on hold at this point is understandable. There is a shortage of vaccines and health workers. However, health authorities must strategise for the future. They need to keep track of children who are unvaccinated or have missed out on a dose and ensure that they are provided with the vaccine as soon as it is possible for this to be administered. Failure to act now will open up space for more and deadlier epidemics in the coming months.