According to a new report from WHO and UNICEF, 25 million children did not receive their scheduled vaccinations in 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts fear this may lead to an increase in measles and rubella outbreaks in the coming years. Amid this devastating news, the American Red Cross is committed to helping the most vulnerable, supporting efforts to limit transmission and quickly end outbreaks.
According to James Noe, senior program officer, the American Red Cross is scaling up its robust measles and rubella initiative (M&RI). “After reading this report, we see the need for increased efforts to mobilize volunteers and utilize tools to reach vulnerable populations,” Noe said.
Currently, the Red Cross plays a pivotal role in vaccination campaigns worldwide. Working alongside the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and World Health Organization, Red Cross volunteers reach families who do not have access to routine health services and provide information about vaccines. Whether in distant villages or urban settlements, these campaigns may be the only way for children to receive this lifesaving vaccine. Since 2001, the Measles & Rubella Initiative has ensured that more than 3 billion children are vaccinated in 88 countries.
Recent Data Shows Steep Decline
According to the WHO and UNICEF report, monumental efforts will be required to reach universal levels of coverage and to prevent outbreaks. Experts are already seeing avoidable outbreaks of measles and polio, underscoring the vital role of immunization in keeping children, adolescents, adults and societies healthy.
First dose measles coverage dropped to 81% in 2021 — the lowest level since 2008. This meant 24.7 million children missed their first measles dose in 2021, 5.3 million more than in 2019. A further 14.7 million did not receive their needed second dose. The sharp two-year decline follows almost a decade of stalled progress, underscoring the need to not only address pandemic-related disruptions but also systemic immunization challenges to ensure every child and adolescent is reached.
Reasons Behind the Slip
The decline was due to many factors including an increased number of children living in conflict and fragile settings where immunization access is often challenging, increased misinformation and COVID-19-related issues such as service and supply chain disruptions, resource diversion to response efforts and containment measures that limited immunization service access and availability.
Larger Global Context
This historic backsliding in rates of immunization is happening against a backdrop of rapidly rising rates of severe acute malnutrition. A malnourished child already has weakened immunity and missed vaccinations can mean common childhood illnesses quickly become lethal to them. The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis.
“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director.
Global Red Cross Response
Measles is one of the most contagious and severe childhood diseases. Every day, it takes the lives of hundreds of children around the world. According to Noe, the Red Cross is supporting campaigns in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Malawi, and Zambia with hopes to grow immunization campaigns over the next five years.
Noe said that in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Red Cross Movement have become increasingly engaged in vaccination programs. For its part, the American Red Cross has helped to foster this change by directly engaging with partner national societies for vaccination campaigns, providing leadership amongst Red Cross colleagues, creating advocacy opportunities in immunization programs and sharing best practices.
“This report shows that our supplemental immunization activity is more important than ever,” he said. “We will continue to work with our Red Cross colleagues around the world and partner with other national societies to protect children and mothers,” Noe said.