Children in South Asia could face health crisis amid COVID-19: UNICEF

The South Asia region is home to two of the last polio endemic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Almost a quarter of the world's unimmunised or partially immunised children, about 4.5 million children live in South Asia | iStock

Expressing concern over the disruptions caused in immunisations due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned on Tuesday that South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region did not receive their life-saving vaccine shots.

Almost a quarter of the world’s unimmunised or partially immunised children, about 4.5 million children live in South Asia. Almost all of them, or 97 per cent, live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With lockdowns in place as a part of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) response, routine immunisations have been severely disrupted, and parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centers for routine jabs. Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already been seen in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

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The South Asia region is also home to two of the last polio endemic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Vaccine stocks are running dangerously low in some countries of the region as supply chains have been disrupted with travel bans and cancelled flights. The manufacturing of the vaccines has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages, says Paul Rutter, Regional Health Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA).

Many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge.

South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots, the UNICEF said.

As long as frontline health workers take the appropriate precautions, particularly washing their hands, there is no reason not to vaccinate in fact, it is crucial that vaccination continues, says Rutter.

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Across the region, national mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed. Bangladesh and Nepal have postponed their national measles and rubella campaigns while Pakistan and Afghanistan have suspended their polio campaigns.

The UNICEF strongly recommends that, where immunization campaigns are suspended, governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunization activities once the COVID -19 pandemic is under control.

We are very concerned about the impact of not getting children vaccinated, says Jean Gough, Director of UNICEF ROSA.

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