News Coronavirus Coronavirus stops vaccines getting to millions of vulnerable babies

Coronavirus stops vaccines getting to millions of vulnerable babies

Millions of children around the world are going without vaccinations against contagious diseases. Photo: Save the Children
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Given more than 1.2 million people have died of the coronavirus, it makes sense that most Australians are engrossed in the hopeful news about the progress of COVID-19 vaccines.

But while we are concerned with when we might get the jab that would help us socialise and travel again, little is mentioned about the impact the virus has had on access to other vaccines.

Some parents have been so scared of the virus that they have avoided taking their children to check-ups and life-saving immunisation appointments.

And travel bans have stopped doctors and nurses getting to some regions, especially near war zones where they were at risk.

Now there are fears that if world leaders do not commit to a ceasefire, future COVID-19 vaccines will never make it to millions of families.

Before this pandemic, getting vaccinated against everything from measles and polio to meningitis and typhoid was so out of reach for children in areas of conflict that they were three times more likely to die from a preventable disease than to be shot dead or killed in an explosion.

Put COVID-19 into the equation and getting immunised against preventable diseases has become even more unattainable for more than 80 million babies.

The World Health Organisation said COVID-19 had “substantially hindered” the ability of health workers to continue to provide routine immunisations in at least 68 countries.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus had caused organisations in 38 countries to suspend campaigns aimed at vaccinating people for polio.

Public efforts to get people jabbed for measles had also been put on hold in 27 countries, according to the WHO.

To be immunised in Australia, it just takes going to your GP. Schools even have immunisation programs.

But in a country like Syria that has been long been ravaged by war, nurses are having to vaccinate babies in tents, where often the only thing separating the infant’s head from the floor is a sterilised mat.

A nurse vaccinating a three-month-old girl on a sterilised mat in north west Idlib, Syria. Photo: Save the Children

The fear alone of contracting the virus was enough for 24-year-old Modina (name changed), a Rohingya refugee who escaped to Bangladesh, to stop taking her one-year-old daughter for her routine immunisations, which she had been receiving since birth.

The day the vaccinations stopped is the day her child starting getting sick.

Plus, Modina was too afraid to leave the house and, as a result, her child went without food to the point that she became malnourished.

“Then I realised how important the vaccinations are. The children will be safe from diseases like chickenpox, measles and many others,” she said.

Modina was fortunate enough to still have the choice to have her child vaccinated amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Modina was too afraid to go outside to get her daughter vaccinated. Photo: Save the Children

The choice is often non-existent for parents of children born in an area long affected by conflict – even if that conflict is at low intensity.

A new report by Save the Children, released on Thursday, said the number of children in Syria who had been vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis “plummeted from 80 per cent in pre-conflict Syria in 2010, to a mere 47 per cent in 2018”.

It said: “These trends are consistent across other countries mired in conflict.”

Many children born in countries such as Nigeria, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo that have been in conflict for decades “may never have received immunisations in the first place”.

“Outbreaks of intense violence are associated with dramatic reductions in immunisation coverage for children,” the report said.

Time will tell how many more children have died as a side effect of medicines and vaccines not making it in to these zones during the pandemic.

“We must not allow preventable diseases to take the lives of children because we couldn’t get vaccines to the 29 million or so babies born in conflict-affected areas,” Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds said.

“While resources are being redirected to fight COVID-19, we cannot allow other horrific diseases to re-emerge and spread across vulnerable populations, and in particular, among children.

“We have fought for too long and too hard to beat these diseases.”

Mr Ronalds said aid organisations were “proud” that Australia had pledged funding to roll out a future COVID-19 vaccine in the Pacific and South East Asia.

In August, the Australian government agreed to contribute $80 million to Gavi, the global vaccine alliance that aims to help get the COVID-19 vaccine to 92 lower- and middle-income economies.

But, Mr Ronalds said, funding alone was not enough. Aid organisations have called on the Morrison government to continue to push for a global ceasefire.

Putting a halt to fighting would allow healthcare workers to distribute much-needed medicine and vaccines including an eventual coronavirus jab.

“Just months ago, the UN Secretary-General appealed for a global ceasefire to limit the spread of COVID-19 and allow aid – and immunisations – to reach the most vulnerable populations,” Mr Ronalds said.

“The call was endorsed by 180 governments, yet the fighting continues.

“We cannot accept this.”