The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that infectious diseases know no borders. All countries are vulnerable, regardless of income levels or the strength of their health care systems. Across the European Region, where tens of millions of people have been living in lockdown for weeks, and over 100 000 people have died, the speed and devastation of the novel coronavirus has completely upended lives.
The urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine underscores the pivotal role immunizations play in protecting lives and economies. As scientists around the world work to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus and health care capacities are stretched in responding to COVID-19, national routine immunization programmes are more critical than ever before. Governments across the Region must use every opportunity possible to protect people from the many diseases for which vaccines are already available.
When routine vaccinations are missed, the risk of disease outbreaks increases. In 2018, approximately 527 000 children missed their first dose of measles-containing vaccine in the WHO European Region. One year later, in 2019, the measles virus exposed immunity gaps in Europe, infecting over 100 000 people across all age groups. Protecting children, adolescents and adults from vaccine-preventable diseases through vaccination is a must for the sustainability of health care systems.
“We know that vulnerability to infectious diseases anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere,”
said Ms. Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“It is critical that routine immunization programmes continue during this crisis, while adequately protecting health workers and individuals receiving vaccinations. Reaching the most vulnerable children who have missed routine immunizations in the past should be prioritized.”
If, during these unprecedented times, local COVID-19 response measures cause temporary interruptions of routine immunization services, countries should plan to resume immunization services as quickly as possible after the situation stabilizes.
Countries should be prepared to vaccinate those at higher risk and ensure everyone, including the most marginalized, will have equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
“We can prevent further impact of COVID-19 on our health care systems by assuring that individuals of all ages remain vaccinated according to national schedules. I urge countries to maintain immunization service delivery and drive demand for vaccination, through the life-course, even at this difficult time. Prioritizing immunization is one of my four flagship areas and central to WHO’s vision for health in the new European Programme of Work,”
said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.
WHO and UNICEF will continue to support the efforts of governments to strengthen their immunization programmes, including through strategic planning for the equitable provision of immunization, strengthening vaccine-preventable disease surveillance, and community engagement and education.
As we step into a new future, vaccines will continue to serve as a foundation for health and well-being for all. It is through solidarity, joint action and tireless commitment to leaving no one behind that we can create a healthier future together.
About UNICEF: UNICEF promotes the rights and well-being of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org/eca.
About WHO: WHO is the authority responsible for public health within the United Nations system. The WHO Regional Office for Europe (WHO/Europe) is one of WHO’s six regional offices, which together with its headquarters in Geneva provide leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, and articulating evidence-based policy options. It also provides technical support to Member States, monitors and assesses health trends, funds medical research and provides emergency aid during disasters. For more information on the WHO Regional Office for Europe and its work to support health and well-being for all, visit www.euro.who.int.
Useful link: Guidance on routine immunization services during COVID-19 pandemic in the WHO European Region (2020)