Europe Participates in UNICEF's Effort to Increase Immunisation and Reach "Zero-dose" Children

Amid the ongoing pandemic, UNICEF aims at vaccination of children in countries struggling with access to basic vaccination programme.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had its consequences also in the deterioration in the basic immunisation programme in some of the world's regions, UNICEF signals. 

"The pandemic diverted attention and resources away from this routine yet essential health service, leaving millions of children at risk of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases — with far-reaching ripple effects for individual children, their families, communities and all of society," the organisation points out at its website.

Therefore, while not neglecting the efforts to combat COVID-19, UNICEF and its partners step up their efforts to vaccinate children who have not had any opportunity at all to receive any of the basic vaccines - so-called "zero-dose" children - in India and 18 other countries struggling with particularly low access to vaccines. The UN agenda says these efforts are pivotal for achieving broader global health goals and may contribute to prevent another global health crisis.


Measles surge in Africa and the Mediterranean


One of the diseases UNICEF wants to combat with its vaccination programme measles. The agenda points to the urgency of this challenge, citing the recent measles outbreaks.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization reported are up 79 percent in the first two months of 2022 compared to the same period last year "due to drops in immunization coverage," UNICEF says.

Most of the recent outbreaks occurred in Africa and in the East Mediterranean region, with the largest outbreaks reported in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

UNICEF has no doubts one reason for childrens' missing out basic vaccination are the pandemic-related disruptions in health services. Another one is displacement caused by various political and environmental factors, such as wars or droughts. When people leave their homes in order to survive, hardly ever do they care about the basic health services.

Although it is Africa that suffers the most from insufficient immunisation, examples can even be found in Europe. In Ukraine, the war outbreak prevented resuming the measles vaccination campaign which had been interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Children "cannot afford gaps in immunisation coverage"


According to UNICEF, about 23 million children around the world missed out on at least some of their basic childhood vaccines in 2020 — the highest number since 2009 and 3.7 million more than in 2019. Of the 23 million an estimated 17 million children received zero vaccinations.

The highest percentage of "zero-dose children" are reported in countries like Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. India may have a high immunisation rate with 87 percent of children receiving their DTP shot in 2020, but still more than 3 million Indian children remain unvaccinated.

"Zero-dose children" usually live in remote areas, "where they endure multiple deprivations, not just in health but in nutrition, safe water, education and other key areas". Moreover, more than half live in military conflict zones, whereas two-thirds live in households surviving on less than $1.90 per day, the agenda says.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell considers it "encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from COVID-19 to return to more social activities". Yet, she points out that this is also the case "in places where children are not receiving routine vaccination creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles."

Gaps in global immunization coverage are "gaps vulnerable children cannot afford," she says.


How the world cooperates to immunise "zero-dose" children


UNICEF, WHO, Gavi and other organisations collaborate in supporting governments to improve health service in countries with high populations of zero-dose children. The challenges involve identifying zero-dose children in these communities, analyse the existing barriers to vaccination, plan how to overcome those barriers, and implement the plans to achieve sustainable delivery of immunisation.

UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the partners of the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other are cooperating in the efforts including restoring services and vaccination campaigns, helping health workers and governments communicate with caregivers to explain the importance of vaccinations and including the communities in need, ensuring that COVID-19 vaccine delivery is well-integrated into overall planning for immunisation services, and implementing country plans to prevent and respond to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.


How the EU supports UNICEF in its efforts


One of UNICEF's most dedicated partners is the European Union. "UNICEF’s strong partnership with the EU is multifaceted and has grown significantly over the past number of years, underpinned by our shared values around development, peace and human rights. We believe that investing in the wellbeing of children and young people is not only a moral imperative or a legal obligation, but also a smart economic decision", the announcement published by UNICEF reads.

The EU "invests significant resources" in UNICEF's activity aimed at improving the health of children all over the world, also by increasing the immunisation coverage level. "Together the EU and UNICEF have been achieving meaningful and sustainable results for children, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals," the UN agenda says.

For instance, in 2021 the support from UNICEF and the EU helped Montenegro to urgently organize a national campaign aimed at increasing the MMR immunisation coverage. A measles epidemic would seriously threaten Montenegro’s public health, whereas an outbreak during the global pandemic would have challenged the capacity of the public health system, says.


Author: Aleksandra Krzysztoszek, EURACTIV Poland