By Phillipa Jaja
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated access to the measles vaccine for children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) resulting in over 4.3 million of them not receiving a single dose of measles vaccine between 2019-2021.
A further 3.8 million children were under-vaccinated for the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine during the same period with a shocking 2.27 million of these children missing out on a single dose.
Over 80 per cent of children – or over 3.36 million children – who are zero-dose for measles in the region are from five countries only.
“It is sad and concerning that the region, which had one of the highest immunization coverage rates in the world, witnesses a setback in immunization rates leading to an increase in the number of zero-dose and under-vaccinated children and compromising years of progress; this puts children in our region at a high risk of vaccine-preventable illnesses,” said Adele Khodr, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Region.
The reports states that while the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation, ongoing conflicts, displacement and increased numbers of refugees living in dire conditions, all combined with already weak health and water and sanitation systems, increase the risk of the spread of diseases. Over the past two years, outbreaks of measles and circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV) have been reported in several countries in the region.
A prior report by the humanitarian and developmental aid agency on African children missing one or more vaccinations between 2019 and 2021, noted that the pandemic in Africa revealed and made worse the “lack of resilience and persistent weaknesses in health systems and primary health care,” according to UNICEF.
This has left the continent vulnerable to additional disease outbreaks on a scale unseen before.
The worst cholera outbreak in Malawi, a country in southern Africa, in 20 years claimed more than 1,000 lives at the beginning of the year. In Zimbabwe last year, a measles outbreak resulted in close to 700 child deaths. According to authorities, the majority of the children in Zimbabwe were not immunised against the illness.
According to UNICEF, there is a “child survival crisis” on the continent, with outbreaks of diseases like measles, cholera, and poliovirus occurring in 34 of Africa’s 54 countries last year.
UNICEF has thus called on “governments, professional health and medical associations, civil society sector, and communities” in the MENA region to urgently prioritize immunization efforts, including through public financing and building resilient primary healthcare systems to respond to public health needs.
It asserted that “concerted efforts” are needed to catch up on the vaccination of children missed during the pandemic and ensure that all children receive vaccines at the right time and age, regardless of their nationality, place of birth, or legal status.