‘Red alert for child health’: 25 million kids missed routine vaccinations due to COVID

Infant receiving a vaccination
An infant receives a routine vaccination at a pediatric office in Fayetteville, Ga.
(Angie Wang / Associated Press)

About 25 million children worldwide have missed out on routine immunizations against common diseases like diphtheria, largely because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted regular health services or triggered misinformation about vaccines, according to the United Nations.

In a new report published Friday, the World Health Organization and UNICEF said their figures showed that 25 million children last year failed to get inoculated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, a marker for childhood immunization coverage, continuing a downward trend that began in 2019.

“This is a red alert for child health,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF’s executive director.


“We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunization in a generation,” she said, adding that the consequences would be measured in lives lost.

Data showed that the vast majority of the children who failed to get immunized were living in developing countries, namely Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines. While vaccine coverage fell in every world region, the worst effects were seen in East Asia and the Pacific.

Experts said this “historic backsliding” in vaccination coverage was especially disturbing since it was occurring as rates of severe malnutrition were rising. Malnourished children typically have weaker immune systems and infections like measles can often prove fatal.

The nation’s youngest children are getting their chance at COVID vaccines. ‘This will be a really big change for our family,’ one parent said.

June 20, 2022

“The convergence of a hunger crisis with a growing immunization gap threatens to create the conditions for a child survival crisis,” the U.N. said.

Scientists said low vaccine coverage rates had already resulted in preventable outbreaks of diseases such as measles and polio. In March 2020, the World Health Organization and partners asked countries to suspend their polio-eradication efforts amid the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. There have since been dozens of polio epidemics in more than 30 countries.


“This is particularly tragic as tremendous progress was made in the two decades before the COVID pandemic to improve childhood vaccination rates globally,” said Helen Bedford, a professor of children’s health at University College London, who was not connected to the U.N. report. She said the news was shocking but not surprising, noting that immunization services are frequently an “early casualty” of major social or economic disasters.

Dr. David Elliman, a consultant pediatrician at Britain’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, said it was critical to reverse the declining vaccination trend among children.

“The effects of what happens in one part of the world can ripple out to affect the whole globe,” he said in a statement, noting the rapid spread of COVID-19 and, more recently, monkeypox. “Whether we act on the basis of ethics or ‘enlightened self-interest,’ we must put [children on] top of our list of priorities.”