UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) today issued an urgent call to action to avert major measles and polio epidemics as COVID-19 continues to disrupt immunization services worldwide, leaving millions of vulnerable children at heightened risk of preventable childhood diseases.
UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that US$655 million (US$400 million for polio and US$255 million for measles) are needed to address dangerous immunity gaps in non-Gavi eligible countries and target age groups.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on health services and in particular immunization services, worldwide,” commented Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “But unlike with COVID, we have the tools and knowledge to stop diseases such as polio and measles. What we need are the resources and commitments to put these tools and knowledge into action. If we do that, children’s lives will be saved.”WHO News Release
“We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “Addressing the global COVID-19 pandemic is critical. However, other deadly diseases also threaten the lives of millions of children in some of the poorest areas of the world. That is why today we are urgently calling for global action from country leaders, donors and partners. We need additional financial resources to safely resume vaccination campaigns and prioritize immunization systems that are critical to protect children and avert other epidemics besides COVID-19.”WHO News Release
In recent years, there has been a global resurgence of measles with ongoing outbreaks in all parts of the world. Vaccination coverage gaps have been further exacerbated in 2020 by COVID-19. In 2019, measles climbed to the highest number of new infections in more than two decades. Annual measles mortality data for 2019 to be released next week will show the continued negative toll that sustained outbreaks are having in many countries around the world.
At the same time, poliovirus transmission is expected to increase in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in many under-immunized areas of Africa. Failure to eradicate polio now would lead to global resurgence of the disease, resulting in as many as 200,000 new cases annually, within 10 years.
New tools, including a next-generation novel oral polio vaccine and the forthcoming Measles Outbreak Strategic Response Plan are expected to be deployed over the coming months to help tackle these growing threats in a more effective and sustainable manner, and ultimately save lives. The Plan is a worldwide strategy to quickly and effectively prevent, detect and respond to measles outbreaks.
THREAT OF POLIO & MEASLES OUTBREAKS
The polio eradication public health infrastructure has been used extensively for COVID-19 response, while for reasons of safety and adequate preparation, polio vaccination campaigns had to be paused. While necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the suspension of more than 60 planned polio vaccination campaigns in 28 countries has already resulted in growing polio outbreaks. Wild poliovirus transmission is increasing in intensity and geographic scope in the two remaining endemic countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus – a form of the virus that can arise in areas where vaccination coverage is low– have increased nearly five-fold over 2019 levels, with evidence of international spread leading to multi-country outbreaks in Africa.
Even before the pandemic, measles was on the upsurge. Outbreaks are likely to increase again following the suspension of measles campaigns in 26 countries, coupled with COVID-19-related disruptions to routine immunization. On the current trajectory, more child deaths are predicted from measles than from COVID-19 in Africa. With waning population immunity against polio and measles, the world faces a perfect storm of outbreaks. Left unchecked, this situation poses an increasingly high risk of explosive outbreaks and potentially further international spread of both polio and measles.
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