Increased misinformation and the disruption to global supply chains due to Covid are behind the largest sustained drop in childhood immunizations in three decades, a UN report said on Thursday.
The proportion of children who received three doses of the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine fell five percentage points to 81 percent between 2019 and 2021, according to official data released by WHO and UNICEF.
This vaccine is used as a marker for immunization protection within and between countries.
Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director, said the slide “sets a warning about children’s health”.
“We are witnessing the largest sustained decline in child immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” she added.
About 25 million children missed one or more doses of DTP in 2021, up two million from 2020 and six million from 2019, putting a growing number of children at risk from preventable diseases.
The slide has been attributed to several factors, including an increased number of children living in conflict-affected areas, rising misinformation and service and supply disruptions due to the Covid pandemic, and lockdowns that limited public campaigning.
Of the 25 million, 18 million did not receive a single dose of DTP in 2021, “the vast majority of whom live in low- and middle-income countries,” a statement said.
India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines recorded the highest number of zero-dose children.
Globally, a quarter of HPV human papillomavirus vaccine coverage achieved in 2019 has been lost, a blow to the fight against cervical cancer.
Only 12 percent of girls are fully protected, even though the first vaccines were approved over 15 years ago.
Observers had hoped 2021 would be a year of recovery after the 2020 lockdowns – but instead it was the worst year for DTP reporting since 2008 and came against a backdrop of rising rates of severe acute malnutrition.
“The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis,” the statement said.
Measles coverage at the first dose fell to 81 percent in 2021, also the lowest level since 2008.
Declines were seen across all regions, although some countries, including Uganda and Pakistan, bucked the negative trend.
The global organizations called on countries to step up their catch-up vaccination efforts. The detailed data sets are available on the UNICEF and WHO websites.
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