The World Health Organization (WHO) warned Friday the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions and demands on resources have stifled immunization programs, leading to polio and measles outbreaks among children in the poorest parts of the world.
At the WHO’s regular briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that earlier this year, Africa was certified as free of wild polio, thanks to the coordinated efforts of multiple organizations, governments, and millions of health care workers.
But he said that since the pandemic hit, regular immunization programs like the one that stopped wild polio in Africa were suspended, leaving children in high-risk areas vulnerable to diseases like polio, measles and pneumonia. He said the agency is now starting to see outbreaks of those diseases.
Tedros said before COVID-19, measles was seeing a resurgence around the world. Last year saw the highest number of new infections in more than two decades. At the same time, he said, poliovirus transmission is expected to increase in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in many under-immunized areas of Africa.
The WHO director general said failure to eradicate polio now would lead to global resurgence of the disease, and within 10 years, there could be as many as 200,000 new cases annually.
Tedros said the WHO and the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) have launched an emergency appeal to donors worldwide to raise $655 million - $400 million for polio and $255 million for measles - to address dangerous immunity gaps and target age groups.
He said the world cannot let efforts to fight one dangerous disease allow others to regain a foothold. "While the world watches intently as scientists work to ensure safe and effective vaccines are developed for #COVID19, it is important to ensure that all children receive the lifesaving vaccines that are already available."