The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that continuing global vaccination campaigns, which involve health workers going door-to-door or large groups gathering in one location to receive vaccines, could cause further spread of the coronavirus. Organizations like the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have paused all campaigns globally, including routine immunization programs run by health clinics or hospitals. While this action will prevent the short-term spread of COVID-19, it puts many nations at risk for outbreaks of other deadly illnesses in the future.
“When people are unprotected through vaccines, diseases like measles, cholera, meningitis, yellow fever and polio can cause devastating epidemics,” said Katherine O’Brien, Director of Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals at the WHO. “This would not only be catastrophic for those who become ill, but also for health systems—especially those already battling COVID-19. The worst impacts will be felt in the poorest countries, where children are most at risk from these diseases.”
School closures have also disrupted school-based vaccination programs, like the HPV inoculation to prevent cervical cancer. Clinics in Kampala, Uganda, reported a 60−80% drop in the number of children arriving for vaccinations. Many children will remain unvaccinated even after the spread of COVID-19 slows because of a lack of infrastructure to track and catch up with missed immunizations.
In Africa, many leading causes of death can be prevented by vaccines, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and rotaviruses. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, is already struggling to fight measles, which has killed 6,500 children and sickened another 340,000 since 2019.
“Because COVID appears to be targeting the elderly, we may have more children dying of preventable disease than of COVID,” Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF representative in the DRC, told The Wall Street Journal.
Suspending vaccination campaigns may also cause outbreaks of diseases that were almost eradicated, such as polio. Worldwide polio cases have been down 99.9% since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began its campaign in 1988. The disease is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was close to elimination, but the polio-fighting infrastructure in those countries has been redirected to assist in the battle against coronavirus.