Navigating Global Childhood Vaccination Challenges Amidst COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused substantial disruptions to health systems and public health, with vaccinations being one of the most profoundly impacted areas. Most notably, children across regions experienced a significant lag in vaccinations during the pandemic. Some progress is being reported in certain areas, but challenges persist in low-income and marginalized settings where many children still have not yet received a single dose of vaccines.
The Shot at Life 2023 summit, convened by the UN Foundation, brought together public health professionals focused on immunization on September 29, 2023. Participants shared their stories about the state of global vaccination, highlighting the challenges faced in their efforts to deliver vaccines to millions of children during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The summit’s discussion panel Stories from the Field: Conversations with Immunization Professionals, featured four Immunization Advocacy Champions, including registered nurses Aidah Nagirinya of Uganda, Hassan Hussain of Sudan, Lois Ezebuiro from Nigeria, and Niba Clinton Ambe from Cameroon, who have led and executed successful vaccination campaigns in their communities.
Using storytelling and advocacy, the Champions have tirelessly worked to protect communities from infectious diseases with vaccines, demonstrating their unwavering commitment even in the face of adversity. Their inspiring efforts serve as a beacon of hope, showing that progress can be made even under the most challenging circumstances.
Aidah, Hassan, Louis, and Niba shared their impressions about the impact of the pandemic on childhood vaccinations and talked about different approaches to boost immunization. With health systems stretched thin and resources redirected to tackle COVID-19, routine immunization programs faced hurdles. The consequences of these disruptions created childhood vaccination gaps.
Aidah Nagirinya explained the challenges Uganda is currently facing to reach zero-dose children. “In the Kalanga district, zero-dose children are increasing,” she said. “In 2021, we had 50,000 children who did not receive any immunizations and in 2023 we are seeing this number at 100,000, so the trend is increasing.”
Hassan Hussain offered a glimpse into the lengths that healthcare workers are willing to go to ensure children receive vital immunizations in Khartoum, Sudan, even in the midst of dangerous situations due to civil turmoil. “The situation is challenging, but we are hoping for help from organizations, like UNICEF”, he clarified. Emergency situations like these are becoming more common around the world, making the work of healthcare professionals increasingly challenging.
Nigeria’s triumph in eradicating polio three years ago has important lessons when it comes to boosting childhood vaccination effectively in the future. Lois Ezebuiro acknowledged that one key factor for the country’s continued success was that the government fully supported health workers in bringing polio vaccines to arms, including making sure parents understood the benefits of vaccinating their children against the disease regardless of where they lived. “Our government was in full support to eradicate polio, and we were able to reach remote populations via helicopter,” said Lois.
One crucial aspect of the discussion revolved around advocacy. Many attendees were interested in learning how they could engage with policymakers more effectively to enhance childhood immunization.
“Policymakers need to hear the real stories from the ground. They need to hear what the impact of their actions looks like”, said Hassan Hussain.
Healthcare professionals like Aidah, Hassan, Lois, Niba, and many others are resilient and full of determination, working to vaccinate children in remote and underserved communities despite numerous challenges, like inclement weather, insufficient infrastructure, and technological issues. Supporting health workers represents a smart investment to achieve the Immunization Agenda 2030 goals and leave no child behind from vital vaccinations.
As we advance into the future, the Immunization Advocacy Champions underpinned that partnerships with national, subnational, and international organizations would be crucial for the revitalization and reimagining of childhood vaccination efforts. In this crucial endeavor, health workers around the world play a pivotal role by advocating for change and actively contributing to the mission of reaching and vaccinating zero-dose children. Vaccinated children will always translate into thriving, more equitable, and healthy societies.
Watch the Stories from the Field: Conversations with Immunization Professionals discussion panel video below.
Nadia Peimbert-Rappaport edited and contributed to this blog post.