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Children in South Asia could face health crisis amid COVID-19: UNICEF

Many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge.

April 28, 2020 / 04:56 PM IST

Expressing concern over the disruptions caused in immunisations due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned on Tuesday that South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region did not receive their life-saving vaccine shots.

Almost a quarter of the world's unimmunised or partially immunised children—about 4.5 million children—live in South Asia. Almost all of them, or 97 per cent, live in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With lockdowns in place as a part of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) response, routine immunisations have been severely disrupted, and parents are increasingly reluctant to take their children to health centers for routine jabs. Sporadic outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and diphtheria, have already been seen in parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

The South Asia region is also home to two of the last polio endemic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Vaccine stocks are running dangerously low in some countries of the region as supply chains have been disrupted with travel bans and cancelled flights. The manufacturing of the vaccines has also been disrupted, creating additional shortages,” says Paul Rutter, Regional Health Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA).

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

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There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Many of the health facilities throughout the region, where millions of children are normally vaccinated, have been closed and outreach sessions have been suspended, adding to the challenge.

South Asia could face yet another health emergency if children across the region do not receive their life-saving vaccine shots, the UNICEF said.

“As long as frontline health workers take the appropriate precautions, particularly washing their hands, there is no reason not to vaccinate – in fact, it is crucial that vaccination continues,” says Rutter.

Across the region, national mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed. Bangladesh and Nepal have postponed their national measles and rubella campaigns while Pakistan and Afghanistan have suspended their polio campaigns.

The UNICEF strongly recommends that, where immunization campaigns are suspended, governments begin rigorous planning now to intensify immunization activities once the COVID -19 pandemic is under control.

“We are very concerned about the impact of not getting children vaccinated,” says Jean Gough, Director of UNICEF ROSA.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.
PTI
first published: Apr 28, 2020 04:53 pm

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