Africa vaccination ‘far outweighs’ virus child death risk

PARIS (AFP) – Continuing routine immunisations against diseases such as measles and yellow fever for children in Africa would far outweigh the risk of infant deaths from COVID-19, health experts said on Friday.

As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts medical supplies and health services worldwide, millions of children are at heightened risk of contracting diseases that can be easily prevented by shots costing pennies.

To assess the extent of the risk to child health, researchers based in Britain and Switzerland created a mathematical model that simulated the spread of COVID-19 for all 54 countries in Africa.

They assumed based on similar countries’ experience with the virus that around 60 per cent of each population would end up contracting COVID-19 and that it would disrupt health services for six months on average.

According to the model, continuing with routine immunisations could lead to 8,300 additional child deaths across Africa from COVID-19.

However disrupting vaccinations to avoid COVID-19 deaths could see more than 700,000 children die throughout the continent before they reach the age of five.

File photo shows a pupil having his hands sanitised on his return to school in Johannesburg. PHOTO: AP

“The benefits of routine childhood immunisation in Africa are likely to far outweigh the risk of additional COVID-19 transmission that might ensue, and these programmes should be prioritised as far as logistically possible,” said joint lead study author from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Kaja Abbas.

The research, published in the Lancet medical journal, focussed on the impact of vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, flu, measles, rubella and yellow fever among others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nation’s (UN) children’s fund warned on Wednesday that the first four months of 2020 saw a “substantial drop” in the three-dose jab that protects against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

At least 30 countries have cancelled or might cancel measles vaccination programmes, the UN said.

Even before the pandemic, 14 million children were missing out on life-saving vaccines every year.

“Routine immunisation programmes are facing enormous disruption across the globe due to this pandemic,” said study co-author from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Switzerland Tewodaj Mengistu.

“Lockdowns make it harder for vaccinators and parents to reach vaccination sessions, health workers are being diverted to COVID-19 response, and misinformation and fear are keeping parents away.”

Mengistu said the research showed “just how big an impact this could have”, risking a resurgence of diseases that vaccination programmes have kept in check for decades.