MARCH 26 2020, GENEVA – Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidance to help countries protect critical immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic, so that ground is not lost in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases.
“WHO is working constantly with partners and scientists to accelerate vaccine development for COVID-19, but we must also ensure people are protected against those diseases for which vaccines already exist,” said Dr. Katherine O’Brien, Director of the Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Programme at WHO. “The message from this guidance is clear. Countries should take what steps they can to sustain immunization programmes and prevent unnecessary loss of life.”
Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases could be catastrophic for communities and health systems already battling the impacts of COVID-19, and substantively increase sickness and fatalities. Last year, measles caused more than 6000 deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country fighting its largest Ebola outbreak – as the country faced a deadly convergence of diseases.
The guidance calls for countries to prioritize routine immunization of children in essential service delivery, as well as some adult vaccinations such as influenza for groups most at risk. If immunization services must be suspended, it recommends urgent catch-up vaccinations as soon as possible, prioritising those most at risk.
In line with physical distancing measures, the guidance recommends temporarily postponing preventive immunization campaigns where there is no active outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. In the event of an outbreak, however, rapid vaccination campaigns may be essential after a careful risk assessment analysis. Where these are conducted, health workers and the public must be protected from COVID-19 through appropriate hygiene procedures, the guidance states.
All immunization services must consider the importance of both ensuring people are protected against preventable diseases, as well as the safety of communities and health workers. WHO is providing a series of guidance to help countries safely maintain essential health services in the context of the COVID-19 response.