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WHO, Unicef warn against a resurge in polio, measles as covid-19 hits healthcare

'We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases,' said Henrietta Fore, executive director, Unicef. (Mint)Premium
'We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases,' said Henrietta Fore, executive director, Unicef. (Mint)

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef on Friday jointly issued an urgent call to action to avert major measles and polio epidemics as the covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt immunization services worldwide.

New Delhi: As covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt immunization services worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef on Friday jointly issued an urgent call to action to avert major measles and polio epidemics.

The pandemic has left millions of vulnerable children at heightened risk of preventable childhood diseases. The WHO and Unicef estimated that $655 million ($400 million for polio and $255 million for measles) are needed to address dangerous immunity gaps in non-Gavi eligible countries and target age groups.

According to WHO, 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. Annual measles mortality data for 2019 to be released next week will show the continued negative toll that sustained outbreaks are having in many countries around the world.

According to the measles surveillance data released by the WHO in 2019, India is on the fourth spot among 194 countries in the number of measles cases registered between July 2018 and June 2019. With 39,299 cases, India stood fourth spot after Madagascar (150,976), Ukraine (84,394) and Philippines (45,847). However, India had the lowest measles incidence rate per million of 29.68 in the top 10 countries.

“Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on health services and in particular immunization services, worldwide. But unlike with covid-19, we have the tools and knowledge to stop diseases such as polio and measles," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO. “What we need are the resources and commitments to put these tools and knowledge into action. If we do that, children’s lives will be saved," he said.

According to data from Health Management Information System (HMIS), under the National Health Mission (NHM), there has been a significant impact on routine immunization services. The immunization among children aged between 9-11 months fell about 28% during April-June from a year ago, the data showed. For instance, the number of children who received the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine to prevent tuberculosis in April was 50% less than of the number for January.

At the same time, poliovirus transmission is expected to increase in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in many under-immunized areas of Africa, the WHO said. This makes India vulnerable to the disease. India was declared polio-free on 27 March 2014. However, the Union health ministry maintains that the risk of importation continues to persist from neighbouring countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria—where poliovirus continues to circulate. Public health experts have said that the country needs to maintain the immunity in its population and continue sensitive surveillance until polio eradication is achieved globally.

Failure to eradicate polio now would lead to global resurgence of the disease, resulting in as many as 200,000 new cases annually, within 10 years, the WHO said. “We cannot allow the fight against one deadly disease to cause us to lose ground in the fight against other diseases. Addressing the global covid-19 pandemic is critical. However, other deadly diseases also threaten the lives of millions of children in some of the poorest areas of the world," said Henrietta Fore, executive director, Unicef.

“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," said Fore.

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