New data published today shows how progress on vaccinating children against diseases such as measles, diphtheria and tetanus has stalled.
Although more than 100 million children were vaccinated in 2018, rates worldwide still stand at 86 per cent, a long way short of the 95 per cent needed to guarantee protection for the whole population from potentially fatal conditions.
“Vaccines are one of our most important tools for preventing outbreaks and keeping the world safe,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.
“While most children today are being vaccinated, far too many are left behind.
“Unacceptably, it’s often those who are most at risk – the poorest, the most marginalised, those touched by conflict or forced from their homes – who are persistently missed.”
Most unvaccinated children live in the developing world, with more than half coming from just 16 countries wracked by conflict and poverty – including Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Somalia.
Measles, one of the diseases Unicef uses to measure vaccination rates, has seen repeated outbreaks in recent years.
In 2018 more than 350,000 cases were reported, double the 2017 figure. “Measles is a real-time indicator of where we have more work to do to fight preventable diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director.
“Because measles is so contagious, an outbreak points to communities that are missing out on vaccines due to access, costs or, in some places, complacency.
“We have to exhaust every effort to immunise every child.”
Measles outbreaks are not limited to poorer countries, or even those with high vaccination rates overall, Unicef also warned.
Last month, the US saw its highest number of measles cases since 1992, even though the disease – which can in rare cases cause hepatitis, meningitis or even death – was declared eradicated in 2000.
Several of the outbreaks of the disease are connected to Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and Michigan, where anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have become popular.
Several other outbreaks are clustered around the mostly liberal West Coast where unfounded suspicion of vaccination has also become commonplace. Children under five account for half of the cases.
Anti-vaccine misinformation has also spread beyond wealthy, western nations as well.
One Unicef vaccinator in Mali, Dalle Kante, said during a recent measles drive one father refused to have his children vaccinated.
However, once one of them caught measles he “realised that the existence of measles is a reality”, she said. “He then brought all his children to be vaccinated.”
The main factors worldwide which are hindering the spread of vaccination, however, are war and under-investment in national immunisation programmes, Unicef said.
The cost of fully vaccinating a child continues to fall, and in 2017 cost just £14, down from £20 just five years earlier. Every pound spent on immunisations for children produced £44 return on investment for low and middle income countries.
“No child should die from a preventable cause, and all children should be able to reach their full potential in health and well-being,” the charity said.
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