The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that infectious diseases know no borders. All countries are vulnerable, regardless of income levels or the strength of their health care systems. Across the European Region, where tens of millions of people have been living in lockdown for weeks, and over 100 000 people have died, the speed and devastation of the novel coronavirus has completely upended lives.
The urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine underscores the pivotal role immunizations play in protecting lives and economies. As scientists around the world work to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus and health care capacities are stretched in responding to COVID-19, national routine immunization programmes are more critical than ever before. Governments across the Region must use every opportunity possible to protect people from the many diseases for which vaccines are already available.
When routine vaccinations are missed, the risk of disease outbreaks increases.
In 2018, approximately 527 000 children missed their first dose of measles-containing vaccine in the WHO European Region. One year later, in 2019, the measles virus exposed immunity gaps in Europe, infecting over 100 000 people across all age groups. Protecting children, adolescents and adults from vaccine-preventable diseases through vaccination is a must for the sustainability of health care systems.
“We know that vulnerability to infectious diseases anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere,” said Ms. Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. “It is critical that routine immunization programmes continue during this crisis, while adequately protecting health workers and individuals receiving vaccinations. Reaching the most vulnerable children who have missed routine immunizations in the past should be prioritized.”
If, during these unprecedented times, local COVID-19 response measures cause temporary interruptions of routine immunization services, countries should plan to resume immunization services as quickly as possible after the situation stabilizes.
Countries should be prepared to vaccinate those at higher risk and ensure everyone, including the most marginalized, will have equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
“We can prevent further impact of COVID-19 on our health care systems by assuring that individuals of all ages remain vaccinated according to national schedules. I urge countries to maintain immunization service delivery and drive demand for vaccination, through the life-course, even at this difficult time. Prioritizing immunization is one of my four flagship areas and central to WHO’s vision for health in the new European Programme of Work,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.
WHO and UNICEF will continue to support the efforts of governments to strengthen their immunization programmes, including through strategic planning for the equitable provision of immunization, strengthening vaccine-preventable disease surveillance, and community engagement and education.
As we step into a new future, vaccines will continue to serve as a foundation for health and well-being for all. It is through solidarity, joint action and tireless commitment to leaving no one behind that we can create a healthier future together.