European health leaders raise alarm over falling vaccination rates

Health leaders have raised the alarm over a decline in immunization rates across the European region, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine.

“COVID-19 placed a significant strain on health systems and exposed existing shortages within the health workforce. Lockdowns and the fear of contracting COVID-19 while visiting healthcare facilities led some families to put off vaccinating their children,” leaders said in a joint statement on Monday.

The statement was issued by Hans Henri P. Kluge, World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for Europe, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides, and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Afshan Khan, as the WHO European Region observes European Immunization Week 2023.

It also revealed that over 1 million children in the WHO European Region have missed all or some routine vaccinations since the start of the pandemic in 2020. This has created a significant risk of large outbreaks of measles, polio, diphtheria, and other infectious diseases. Measles cases in the region, which spans 53 countries, rose from 159 in 2021 to over 900 in 2022, while diphtheria cases jumped from 41 in 2021 to 300 in 2022.

“The more children who fall behind in their vaccination schedule, the greater the risk of large outbreaks of measles, polio, diphtheria, and other dangerous infectious diseases,” the health leaders said.

They also addressed the growing immunization equity gap between poor and wealthy nations. In 2021, half of the region’s 20 middle-income countries reported vaccine coverage below 90 percent for at least one vaccine, compared to less than 10 percent of high-income countries.

Further challenges to immunization strategies in the region include the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and earthquakes in Türkiye, which have disrupted health services and limited access to life-saving vaccines.

European Immunization Week is an annual initiative held during the last week of April. ■

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