As countries prepare for eventual COVID-19 vaccines, experts caution that falling immunisation coverage could lead to outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Consequently, WHO and immunisation experts in the African Region urge countries and health stakeholders to prioritise immunisation services, which have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect children and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases.
The call came from the African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group (RITAG), which convened virtually from Nov. 18, 2020 to Nov. 19, 2020, to discuss the status of immunisation in the region.
The meeting also discussed the preparedness for a future COVID-19 vaccine.
The RITAG serves as the principal advisory group to the WHO on immunisation policies and programmes in the African Region.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said: “COVID-19 has disrupted the delivery of essential health services, including routine immunization.
“This puts people at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases, and threatens the gains we have made to date.
“As we prepare for a COVID-19 vaccine, we must ensure that the life-saving vaccines we already have reach those most in need,” a statement by WHO Regional Office for Africa said.
It noted that in 2019, immunisation coverage in the African region stagnated at 74 per cent for the third dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis containing-vaccine (DTP3), and at 69 per cent for the first dose of the measles vaccine.
This was far below the regional target of 90 per cent.
These gaps in coverage have been exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting millions of children at risk for deadly diseases.
“For example, an additional 1.37 million children across the African region missed the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine which protects against tuberculosis.
“And an extra 1.32 million children below the age of one missed their first dose of measles vaccine between January and August 2020, when compared with the same period in 2019.
“Immunisation campaigns covering measles, yellow fever, polio and other diseases have been postponed in at least 15 African countries in 2020.’’
RITAG members stressed the urgency of resuming routine immunisation services, while following WHO guidelines for planning and implementing catch-up immunisation and adhering to strict COVID-19 prevention protocols.
Prof. Helen Rees, Chair of the RITAG, said that collective action to strengthen immunisation was needed, now more than ever, as the end of the Decade of Vaccines closes in and COVID-19 limits access to essential health services across Africa.
Also, Dr Richard Mihigo, Programme Manager for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, said: “Current outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases are an apt reminder of the work that remains to be done.
“How we respond to these outbreaks amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be critical to protecting children and communities, and to preventing further disease outbreaks,’’ he said.
The News Agency of Nigeria reports that experts who attended the meeting also discussed the need for countries to lay the groundwork for the introduction and delivery of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, as an urgent priority.
RITAG members urged WHO and partners to engage all relevant stakeholders in the vaccine preparedness process, including national leadership.