Why Kids Are More At Risk Than Ever To Get Sick With A Serious Disease

Nations with a high number of unvaccinated kids are showing an uptick in illnesses the vaccinations protect against such as Hepatitis B, polio, measles, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis.

By Kari Apted | Published


Vaccine rates for children are down across the globe, according to a new report released by UNICEF. It found that 67 million kids missed some or all of their routine vaccinations between 2019 and 2021 and 48 million did not receive a single jab during this time period. The problem is particularly serious in India, which has 2.7 million children with no childhood vaccines at all, the world’s largest number.

This lull in protective vaccinations highlights how deeply the pandemic disrupted basic healthcare services around the globe. With families in lockdown and healthcare resources diverted to care for those with COVID-19, routine appointments for things like vaccinations were canceled or not scheduled at all. Countless people were afraid to visit medical care facilities for fear of catching the virus.

“We’ve seen the largest sustained decline in the number of children reached with their basic childhood immunizations,” Lily Caprani, chief of global advocacy at UNICEF told NPR. “And the consequences of that will be measured in children’s lives. It’s the largest continuous decline in childhood vaccinations in 30 years.”

Children born during or just before the coronavirus pandemic are now approaching three years old. If they had received vaccinations on schedule, they would have already been protected from Hepatitis B, polio, measles, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. But because so many missed—or did not have access to—vaccines, a whole group of kids is unprotected.

Children living in South Asian and African countries are most affected by the pause in receiving vaccinations. There are about 6.8 million children in West and Central Africa with zero doses of routine childhood vaccines. Nigeria ranks just behind India for the nation with the highest number of unvaccinated kids: 2.2 million.

“This is really a crisis within a crisis,” said Kate O’Brien, director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at the World Health Organization (WHO). “The backsliding of the immunization program is a direct result of the pandemic, and it should be responded to with the same urgency as we have to the pandemic.”

As expected, nations with a high number of unvaccinated kids are showing an uptick in illnesses the vaccinations protect against. Last year, 33 countries reported “large or disruptive” outbreaks of measles, up from 22 countries the year before. According to Brian Keeley, editor of the UNICEF report, the total number of measles cases doubled from 2021 to 2022, and Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and Somalia all had major outbreaks.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that causes a high fever followed by a rash. For some, measles can lead to serious complications including blindness, pneumonia, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, and dehydration. Outbreaks can quickly strain healthcare resources, particularly in impoverished and under-resourced areas.

Keeley is also alarmed by the number of new polio cases in 2022, up 60 percent compared to the year prior. “For my generation, we thought [polio] was over,” he said. “We thought it was dealt with. It isn’t. If we don’t keep up efforts to vaccinate every child, this will come back.”

Sadly, UNICEF estimates that at least 200,000 lives have been lost due to the pandemic-related disruptions in childhood vaccinations. But initial data collected in 72 countries during 2022, which was not included in UNICEF’s report, suggests an increase in vaccines over the past year. O’Brien hopes this means the world is recommitting to making routine childhood vaccinations a priority.

“So based on those countries, it looks like we’ve gotten back to roughly a 2019 level, possibly with some improvement,” said O’Brien. She praised India’s efforts, saying they had a strong commitment to targeting areas of the country where zero-dose children live. “We know that in 2022 they’ve had a very good recovery of their program and are really a global leader in this area.”

The UNICEF report also included evidence that people have lost some trust in the value of vaccinations in recent years. Of the 55 countries they surveyed, 52 reported a decline in vaccine confidence during the pandemic. Organizations like UNICEF and WHO are working to restore confidence by providing reliable, evidence-based information about the importance of routine childhood vaccinations.