Childhood immunisation off track

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When it comes to immunisation, no child is safe until every child is safe. AFP

Around the world, countries are racing at an unprecedented speed to develop a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. While such a breakthrough could allow social restrictions to be safely eased and bring an eventual end to the pandemic, it will likely take months or years to achieve.

In the meantime, we cannot overlook the vaccines that we already have to avert additional waves of childhood illness and death from other deadly, yet entirely preventable diseases such as measles and polio.

Already there is evidence that routine immunisation services are at risk. A recent assessment of the Indonesian health system conducted by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF shows that 84 per cent of the more than 5,000 health facilities surveyed from all 34 provinces reported significant disruptions to immunisation services. Although many continue to offer immunisation, others have had their services partially interrupted or shut down completely.

The survey outlines several reasons for these suspensions, including the introduction of physical distancing measures, disruptions to vaccine supplies caused by travel restrictions and hesitancy on the part of caregivers to bring their children to health facilities.

A follow-up survey by the health ministry and UNICEF from July this year with nearly 7,000 parents and caregivers provides an understanding of community views on immunisation during the pandemic.

Despite widespread fears of becoming infected with the virus, respondents expressed strong support for the government’s policy to continue immunisation services with safety precautions. The majority of parents and caregivers indicated that despite the pandemic, they would like to continue safely immunising their children. This shows there is still strong demand for vaccination services – and for good reason.

The science is clear – immunisation saves lives. Immunisation against common childhood diseases is the most effective public health intervention to prevent outbreaks.

Routine childhood immunisation requires fewer resources than responding to outbreaks and preventing illnesses helps to reduce the burden on the already strained health systems.

It is also a sound investment. Globally every US dollar spent on childhood immunisations can yield up to $44 in economic benefits, which include savings on medical costs and productivity loss when a child is sick and a parent cannot work.

In Indonesia, the immunisation programme has accomplished major public health goals, such as the eradication of maternal and neonatal tetanus in 2016. The proportion of children receiving all their basic routine vaccines has increased from 59 per cent in 2007 to 65 per cent in 2017, contributing to a drop in under-five child mortality, from 44 deaths per 1,000 live births to 32 during that same period.

In the face of a global pandemic, hard-fought gains in immunisation coverage are in peril. Data from the health ministry already shows a steep drop in the number of child vaccinations this year.

UNICEF and the World Health Organisation have maintained that immunisation can be delivered safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Investment in immunisation must be increased and safeguarded against any potential cuts.

For the well-being of our children, we cannot let efforts against a new disease come at the expense of long-term progress against others. When it comes to immunisation, no child is safe until every child is safe.

Debora Comini is the UNICEF representative in Indonesia.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK