Greater efforts needed to get routine immunization back to pre-Covid times: WHO

The World Health Organization on Saturday called for greater efforts in the South-East Asia Region to revive routine immunization rates to pre-Covid times, stressing that despite concerted efforts by countries, challenges and gaps persist.

“Commendably the region has administered 3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to date, since January 2021 when the first dose of vaccine was administered in the South-East Asia Region.

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“As we focus on further scaling up COVID-19 vaccination coverage, we must also do all we can to ensure no child is deprived of life-saving vaccines offered under routine immunization services,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director WHO South-East Asia.

Many counties have demonstrated that routine immunization can be maintained or scaled up along with COVID-19 vaccination, she said on a statement.

“This speaks for a very committed health work force which has to manage both considerable challenges.” Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand maintained high vaccination rates over 95 per cent DTP3 coverage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Bhutan witnessed a slight decline in 2020 but surpassed its pre-pandemic coverage of 97 per cent to record 98 per cent DTP3 coverage in 2021, it said.

Globally, DTP3 (third dose of vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) in one-year old children, is a proxy indicator for immunization coverage, it said.

Nepal substantially revived routine immunization coverage for DTP3 from 84 per cent in 2020 to 91 per cent in 2021. These six countries have also achieved high COVID-19 vaccination coverage, the WHO statement said.
Routine immunization coverage declines witnessed in 2020 in India and Timor-Leste seem to have stabilized in 2021 indicating programme recoveries as well, it said.

In 2021, India provided close to 2 billion doses of COVID-19 and other childhood vaccines taken together, over five times more vaccines administered in the country during the year than in 2020, the statement said.
All countries in the South-East Asia Region focused on routine immunization while prioritizing essential services during the pandemic and concerted efforts continue to be made to scale-up vaccination coverage, with a focus on identifying and vaccinating ‘missed children’, the world health body said.

Efforts for measles and rubella elimination, a flagship priority in the Region, continued during the pandemic. Nepal substantially increased the coverage for second dose of measles and rubella vaccine from 76 per cent in 2019 to 87 per cent in 2021. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka maintained their respective coverage rates throughout the pandemic, the statement said.

To revitalize routine immunization coverage following the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO convened a South-East Asia Regional Working Group on Immunization in March this year focusing on programme intensification, it said.
Strengthening catch-up campaigns, tracking unvaccinated and under vaccinated children, combining COVID-19 vaccination with routine immunization, training of health workers and addressing concerns of communities, were stressed, the statement said.

However, concerns and challenges remain, it added. “WHO is cognizant of the efforts and is supporting Member States improve routine immunization coverage. With stepped up efforts in recent months, we hope to see a speedy scale-up of DTP3 coverage to the pre-pandemic level of 91 per cent in 2019 from 82 per cent in 2021 and second dose measles and rubella vaccine coverage to beyond 83 per cent in 2019 from 78 per cent in 2021,” the Regional Director said.

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