Avoidable deaths could soar if children are not vaccinated due to fear of Covid-19
In SA, vaccinating children over the lockdown would avert more than 18,000 deaths compared to about 300 excess Covid-19 deaths
Suspension of childhood immunisation in SA during the lockdown could have detrimental effects and result in thousands of young children dying from preventable infections such as diarrhoea, measles and pneumonia, a new study has cautioned.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended in March that vaccination campaigns be temporarily suspended. The world body qualified this by advising that these programmes be sustained in places where healthcare services had adequate human resources and vaccine supply, and where physical distancing could be maintained.
Researchers from the London School of Tropical Medicine have estimated that as many as 702,000 children, and more than 18,000 in SA, could die before they are five years old as a result of the temporary suspension of immunisation programmes during lockdown.
The study, which appears in The Lancet journal, suggested that while many people are not taking their children to clinics for fear of contracting Covid-19, the benefits of inoculating children far outweigh the risk of dying from Covid-19 for both children and their caregivers.
For every one potential Covid-19 death from visiting a clinic, 84 deaths would be prevented in children under five years by immunisation, they argue.
In SA, vaccinating children over the lockdown would avert more than 18,000 deaths compared to about 300 excess Covid-19 deaths.
Researchers say there is a 25% chance of measles outbreaks during a six-month lockdown. About a third of averted deaths are attributable to measles and another third to pertussis.
Immunisation during the three vaccination visits to inoculate against hepatitis B, influenza type B, and pneumonia and diarrhoea could avert about 471,000 deaths while the first dose of vaccination for measles, rubella and yellow fever in some African countries is estimated to prevent about 220,000 deaths.
The second dose of the measles vaccine could prevent 10,300 deaths among children until they are five years old.
A third of the deaths prevented by childhood vaccines are predicted to be in Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Writing in The Lancet journal, lead researcher Dr Kaja Abbas from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines said the latest analysis “suggests that the benefit of sustaining routine childhood immunisation in Africa far outweighs the excess risk of Covid-19 deaths during the child's vaccination visit, particularly for the vaccinated children”.
“This finding reinforces the guidance issued by WHO and a statement from the Measles & Rubella Initiative, which assert that routine childhood immunisation programmes should be sustained if essential health services have operational capacity of adequate human resources and vaccine supply.”
Kaja said both in high-impact and low-impact scenarios, vaccination would still be beneficial.
While non-coronavirus pathogens are likely to be reduced by lockdown physical- distancing measures, children at risk as a result of suspension of immunisation “could get infected once physical distancing measures are relaxed”.
Researchers cautioned that vaccinated children could, however, still pass Covid-19 to their adult carers and the elderly.
“This finding highlights the importance of shielding older adults to lower their risk of acquiring Covid-19 infections, while allowing children in their households to benefit from routine vaccination to lower their risk of acquiring vaccine-preventable infectious diseases.
“Routine childhood immunisation programmes should therefore be safeguarded for continued service delivery and prioritised for the prevention of infectious diseases, as much as is logistically possible, as part of delivering essential health services during the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa,” researchers noted.
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