Expert insight

Improving child health around the world through immunisation

12 December 2022
  • Laetitia Bigger Director, Vaccines Policy

Ever since the smallpox vaccine discovery over two centuries ago, vaccines have successfully worked to eradicate, eliminate, or control many infectious diseases.

Apart from clean water, nothing has had a bigger impact on global public health, especially for children, their families, and communities.

Red alert for child health

However, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, global health organisations have sounded a ‘red alert’ for child health. Childhood vaccination rates around the world have dropped for the first time in 30 years, threatening decades of progress for child health. Worryingly, 25 million infants missed out on basic routine vaccines in 2021 alone, and most are ‘zero-dose children’ who did not receive a vital first vaccine dose against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

Teenage HPV vaccine rates drop 

Another fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is the decrease in human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates which protects teenage girls against cervical cancer. As a result, in over 100 countries that have introduced HPV vaccination to date, approximately 1.6 million girls missed out in 2020. Globally, only 13% of girls were vaccinated against HPV in 2020, falling from 15% in 2019.

Improving child health

Significant progress has been made in child health and child survival rates over the past three decades with the global under-five mortality rate decreasing by more than 60%. Childhood vaccination can nurture our success in preventing infectious diseases we now consider rare and controlled.

We must urgently get routine childhood immunisations back on track to avoid unnecessary outbreaks of debilitating diseases like measles, polio and pertussis. Furthermore, we need to raise awareness of the benefits of maternal immunisation against pertussis, tetanus or influenza, which can provide early protection — not only for pregnant women but also their newborns during the vulnerable first hours and weeks of their lives.

New and improved vaccines against viruses like RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) — a leading cause of infant hospitalisation and the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in infants — along with vaccines against malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea-causing diseases can also improve the health and wellbeing of children and their families.

Lessons learned

The Covid-19 pandemic showed us that when we work together, we can achieve amazing things. By continuing to invest in vaccine innovation while working with global health partners to ensure routine immunization programmes get back on track, encourage life course immunization and equitable access to vaccines, we can optimise the life-saving and life-enhancing power of immunisation and protect the future of millions of children and their families.

This article was first featured in a special Media Planet supplement on Children’s Health, distributed in print with The Guardian on 12 December 2022.