Children at risk as immunisation rate falls in the Americas

One in four children in Latin America and the Caribbean is missing out on vital vaccines.

That was the major point coming out of a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which revealed a drop in immunisation coverage rate to the lowest in almost 30 years.

The report, entitled The State of the World’s Children 2023, highlights the significant decline in childhood vaccination rates in the region over the past decade with coverage of the third dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (DTP3) among children under one year old falling from 93 per cent in 2012 to just 75 per cent in 2021.

As it stands, this is the region’s lowest routine immunisation rate in 30 years, placing it below the global average of 81 per cent and marginally ahead of Eastern and Southern Africa at 74 per cent.

The report states that this drop in immunisation has left 2.4 million children – equivalent to one in four under the age of one – unprotected from vaccine preventable diseases. Over 1.7 million of these children have not been vaccinated at all, with children from the poorest families almost three times more likely to be “zero-dose” than those from wealthier backgrounds.

That decline is considered a serious concern as diseases such as diphtheria, measles and polio, which were once believed to have been eradicated in many countries, are making a comeback across the region and putting the lives of the most marginalised children at risk.

Key factors in the region’s growing inequalities are natural disasters, violence, urbanisation, instability and migration. Uneven public spending in health across the region and reduced investment in some countries has left the most marginalised communities cut off from quality primary health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these challenges by interrupting childhood vaccination due to intense demands on health systems and lockdown measures.

There have also been signs of a decline in confidence in vaccinations in some countries in recent years.

UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Garry Conille said: “With one of the best track records in childhood vaccination, Latin America and the Caribbean has no excuses. Ten years ago, this region proved it could protect children from life threatening diseases. There is no reason why we can’t do it again now with more knowledge, capacity and resources.”

He continued: “Vaccination is one of the simplest and most cost effective public health interventions. To regain lost ground and ensure every child is vaccinated, governments and partners must invest in immunisation and primary health care. We can prevent childhood diseases now or all pay the price later.”

UNICEF has called on governments and partners to urgently identify and vaccinate all children, particularly those in the poorest households, indigenous children and afro-descendant children who have missed vaccinations. The organisation has also urged prioritising funding to immunisation services and primary health care, building resilient health systems through investment in health workers, innovation and manufacturing of vaccine supplies in the region and strengthening the demand for vaccines including by rebuilding the confidence in vaccines. (JC)

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