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COVID putting millions at risk of other vaccine-preventable diseases, says WHO

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A COVID vaccine is administered in Honduras
A COVID vaccine is administered in Honduras   -   Copyright  Elmer Martinez/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press
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Global vaccine programmes need protection to avoid mass outbreaks of diseases other than COVID-19 the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions to immunisation campaigns around the world, with WHO data showing 60 campaigns are currently suspended in 50 countries.

This is leaving some 228 million people - mainly children - at risk of exposure to deadly vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, yellow fever and polio.

At a media briefing the WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said while vaccines will help bring an end to the pandemic, “if we’re to avoid multiple outbreaks of life-threatening diseases like measles, yellow fever and diphtheria, we must ensure routine vaccination services are protected in every country in the world.”

Updating on the state of the pandemic, he said cases had increased worldwide for the ninth week in a row, while deaths attributed to COVID were up for the sixth consecutive week.

“There were almost as many cases in the last week as there were in the first five months of the pandemic,” he told the media.

WHO told Euronews earlier this month it is concerned fewer Europeans got routine vaccinations for serious diseases during the pandemic.

"From the preliminary data we are seeing and information we are receiving from national public authorities, we are afraid that routine immunisation coverage decreased in 2020," Dragan Jankovic, technical officer in WHO’s Europe office for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunisation said.

Monday's warning about the disruption to immunisation campaigns came during Immunisation Week, which started on 24 April, intended to raise awareness of the importance of protecting and expanding vaccination campaigns.

Routine childhood immunisations continue to be disrupted, in more than a third of countries in the first quarter of 2021 he said.

While this is a “significant improvement” on the situation last year, it is still a serious cause for concern Ghebreyesus added, warning “we must turn the tide quickly and rebound from these disruptions”.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 20 million children were missing out on life-saving vaccines each year.

Along with UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, WHO launched an Immunization Agenda 2030, a global strategy to improve vaccinations, with the aim of saving 50 million lives.

WHO says most of these will be in lower and middle-income countries, and targets include achieving 90% coverage for essential vaccines given in childhood and adolescence, to halve the number of children missing out on all vaccines, and to introduce new or under-used vaccines.

Meanwhile, Ghebreyesus said the situation in India concerning the COVID pandemic was "beyond heartbreaking".

The Indian variant of the disease has plunged the country of 1.3 billion people into chaos, with health systems collapsing and a world record of nearly 350,000 infections in a single day on Sunday.

The European Union, UK and the United States have pledged to help, and the WHO chief said his organisation was "doing everything it can" too, including providing essential equipment and supplies, and sending 2,600 staff to support the response on the ground.