By Chioma Obinna
To avert major measles and polio epidemics the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization, WHO on Wednesday urged countries including Nigeria to take urgent action that would protect millions of vulnerable children at heightened risk of preventable childhood diseases due to disruptions in immunisation occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic.
In a press statement jointly issued by UNICEF and WHO, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on health services and in particular immunization services, worldwide.
“But unlike with COVID, we have the tools and knowledge to stop diseases such as polio and measles. What we need is the resources and commitment to put these tools and knowledge into action. If we do that, children’s lives will be saved.”
On their part, UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore said: “We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose the ground in the fight against other diseases.
“Addressing global COVID-19pandemic 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.”
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.
Nigeria remains at risk of both polio and measles outbreaks due to the inadequate improvements in increasing the routine immunization coverage in children receiving lifesaving vaccines. Nigeria was declared free of the wild poliovirus in August 2020.
Measles also continues to be among the leading cause of death and disability among children, with the first dose of measles vaccination coverage of only 54 per cent (NDHS 2018) in Nigeria. Nigeria is conducting supplemental immunizations to prevent outbreaks.
On his part, UNICEF Nigeria Country Representative, Peter Hawkins said: “Immunization is the best way to secure the future of our children. It is very safe, effective, and available at all government health centres. All caregivers and parents need to ensure that their children are fully vaccinated and protected from childhood killer diseases – including ensuring that all doses are taken so that the vaccine can be effective.”
WHO Country Representative, Walter Kazadi Mulombo said: “We must continue to engage traditional and religious institutions, as well as other key stakeholders at the community level, to stay vigilant and keep up vaccination rates to avert a resurgence of the wild poliovirus – and to address the continued threat of vaccine-derived polio and other vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, including measles.”
Poliovirus transmission is expected to increase in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in many under-immunized areas of Africa, according to WHO and UNICEF. Failure to eradicate polio now would lead to the global resurgence of the disease, resulting in as many as 200,000 new cases annually, within 10 years.