In normal circumstances, the United Nations and global humanitarian organizations help to deliver life-saving vaccines to children in developing countries. The provision of routine childhood vaccinations to fight diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio and others, has lead to a revolution in child survival. This is particularly the case in poorer countries of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. More children than ever before are reaching the age of five years old, and then surviving on to adulthood. This is largely the result of access to these vaccines.
But in the time of COVID-19, access to routine childhood vaccines is being interrupted. There are supply chain problems and some countries are facing stock-outs. Furthermore, conducting vaccine campaigns requires immense logistical coordination, particularly for rural and hard to reach communities. These campaigns are far more difficult to plan and execute in a time of social distancing and social disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Barbara Saitta is a nurse with Doctors without Borders / Medicines Sans Frontiers who specializes in vaccination campaigns, primarily in poorer countries. She tells me that because of supply chain interruptions, a number of countries are running out of routine childhood vaccines. This includes vaccines for measles, polio, and the all-important pentavalent vaccine that protects against five common diseases.
What is so alarming about the interruption of routine childhood vaccinations is that there is a direct correlation between mass immunization and avoiding mass death. According to a recent modeling study, the uninterrupted provision of routine immunizations over a six month period in Africa results in 715,000 children reaching the age of five. Needless to say, any interruption to vaccinations would lower that number and result in significant numbers of children dying. There is, therefore, an urgent need to ensure sustained vaccine coverage–despite the complications caused by COVID-19.
We kick off with a discussion of how vaccine campaigns generally operate in a developing country with poor infrastructure, before having a broader conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on routine childhood immunizations.