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COVID Pandemic Blocking Shipments of Vaccines for Millions of Children

FILE - A boy receives a diphtheria vaccine at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 9, 2019.
FILE - A boy receives a diphtheria vaccine at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 9, 2019.

The U.N. Children’s Fund warns that COVID-19 mitigation measures are preventing the shipment of vaccines to dozens of developing countries, putting the lives of millions of children at risk.

Lockdowns and other measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus are causing a massive backlog in vaccine shipments. UNICEF reports it had procured nearly 2.5 billion doses of vaccines last year, enough for 45% of all children under age 5 in 100 countries.

But the agency says that most of these vaccines are stuck in warehouses because of the dramatic decline in commercial and charter flights due to COVID-19 restrictions. It says dozens of countries are running out of these vaccines. It says 26 countries, more than half in sub-Saharan Africa, are at particular risk.

UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado says the skyrocketing costs of shipping the vaccines are compounding these problems. She says freight rates are 100 to 200% higher than before, and the cost of chartering a plane is exorbitant.

“Countries with limited resources will struggle to pay these higher prices, leaving children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, measles, polio and other vaccines were out of reach for 20 million children under the age of 1 every year,” Mercado said.

Health officials report most polio vaccination campaigns have been suspended, putting the decades-long polio eradication initiative at risk. Mercado told VOA it is possible to organize immunization campaigns in the midst of the pandemic.

“In DRC, which you know had the worst measles outbreak last year, we had been immunizing children against measles. Of course, respecting the social distancing and safety measures that are required now,” Mercado said.

UNICEF warns disruptions in routine immunization, especially in countries with fragile health systems, could lead to outbreaks of killer diseases this year and beyond. It is appealing to governments, the private sector and airline industry to free freight space and make the cost of transporting these vaccines affordable.