Kathmandu, Sharing concern over the disruption in essential immunisation services as the focus shifts entirely towards curbing the Covid-19 led pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the countries in South-East Asia Region on Wednesday to enhance the routine immunization along with the ongoing efforts to rapidly increase the Covid-19 vaccination coverage.

“The vulnerability to vaccine-preventable diseases has increased with the pandemic disrupting essential immunization services and surveillance for vaccine-preventable disease. Though efforts are being made, much more needs to be done especially at the sub-national levels and to reach the unreached and underserved population,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, at the Seventy-Fourth Regional Committee meeting.

Recalling the strong progress made until the onset of the pandemic, Khetrapal said that till 2019, the region was in a historically best position related to vaccine-preventable disease control with 91% coverage with three doses of DTP vaccine (DTP3). 

Ten of 11 countries had achieved more than 90% DTP3 coverage, she added.

Though routine immunization services were among the first essential services that countries began to restore during the pandemic, the UN agency stated that the DTP3 coverage in the region dipped to 85 per cent in 2020. 

As per WHO’s estimate, the number of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children increased to 4.9 million as against 3 million in 2019. “Surveillance of vaccine-preventable diseases was also affected,” it added.

The UN agency further shared its concern on measles and rubella elimination programs which have taken a hit in the region amid the pandemic.

The WHO evaluated that the estimated coverage with the first dose of measles-containing vaccine (MCV1) in the region declined to 88 per cent in 2020 compared with 94 per cent in 2019. Similarly, coverage with the second dose of measles-containing vaccine declined to 78% in 2020 compared with 83% in 2019, it added.

The agency also shared concern for the gap in disease surveillance programs escalated by the pandemic in several countries which has led to delay in implementation of mass vaccination campaigns and other immunization-related activities.

“There is an urgent need to repair the damage caused by Covid-19, to regain the momentum achieved in the previous decade, and to protect infants, young people and adults with life-saving vaccines,” Khetrapal said.

However, the WHO appreciated the South East Asia Region countries for making “unprecedented efforts to expand Covid-19 vaccination coverage with over 915 million doses administered across the region.” The availability of more vaccine doses in recent weeks has helped scale up coverage.

Meanwhile, the ongoing regional committee meeting by the WHO with the member countries also discussed the strategic framework for the South-East Asia Region’s vaccine action Plan 2022−2030 which focuses on the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccination and restoration of immunization systems and vaccine-preventable disease surveillance from the impact of the pandemic.

“We need to ensure strategies are in place to maintain and enhance routine immunization without impacting the efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates,” Khetrapal said.

The WHO’s seventy-fourth regional committee session with member nations of the South-East Asia Region is underway in Nepal. The health ministers of the region are present at the event which will be concluded on September 10.

(EW correspondent)