Routine vaccinations must continue – UNICEF

As COVID-19 has continued to spread globally, more than 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on receiving the lifesaving measles vaccine.

As COVID-19 has continued to spread globally, more than 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on receiving the lifesaving measles vaccine.

However, 15-month-old toddler Zoe is one of the lucky ones. 

It’s March. A lifetime ago, in other words. The Onslow Medical Centre in Johnsonville, just outside of Wellington, is busy with the normal midday rush. Only weeks later New Zealand will be placed under strict lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), making a routine checkup like this one a little more complicated.

For now, Zoe sits with her mum, distracted by bright plastic toys piled in the waiting area. Today she has come in for her routine 15-month checkup – a checkup that includes immunisations for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), hib (haemophilus infuenzae type b vaccine) and pneumococcal disease.

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It’s never fun getting poked with a needle. However that big ouch can potentially be lifesaving. Nurse Laurie Walmsley leads mother and toddler into her office and explains just how.

“You want to protect the child from these illnesses that can be fatal,” she says. “We had a small outbreak of measles last year, and the MMR vaccine is the easiest way to prevent that.”

Zoe was the perfect patient

Nurse Laurie then injects the vaccines one by one, into the toddler’s shoulders and legs. Baby Zoe erupts into tears, but not for long. Nurse Laurie pulls a sparkly surprise from her desk drawer.

“Zoe was the perfect patient,” says nurse Laurie. “She only cried for a moment and then was easily distracted by a couple of stickers.” A few shorts seconds of pain for a lifetime of protection. “I implore everyone to immunise,” she says, “and if you’re not an immuniser: rethink it.”

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Even though New Zealand has easy access to vaccines, we’re still not immune from outbreaks of disease. A lack of vaccination can still be a death sentence for kiwi kids. During New Zealand’s last major outbreak of measles, in the 1990s, there were around 7000 cases, and seven deaths. 

In the developing world, where so much of UNICEF’s work takes place, it’s common knowledge that lack of vaccination can have fatal consequences. And as COVID-19 has continued to spread globally, measles immunisation campaigns in 24 countries have already been delayed (Bangladesh, Brazil, Bolivia, Cambodia, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, DRC, Ethiopia, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Maldives, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Paraguay, Somalia, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan). It seems likely that more will be postponed.

Fortunately, New Zealand is not among those countries to defer routine vaccinations. Rebecca Bangma was able to take her daughter, Adah, in for her 15-month checkup a few days after level-four lockdown began.

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She had called the Johnsonville Medical Centre and was told Adah’s checkup would go ahead, but that only one parent should accompany her. It was Rebecca’s first outing since the lockdown started. She arrived first to an empty car park, and then a completely empty waiting room.

“It was a bit surreal,” she remembers. “They had even swapped out all the furniture and toys you might normally find in a waiting room.”

The nurse wore full PPE equipment while she administered the vaccines. “Adah really wanted to interact with her,” remembers Rebecca. “But, of course, she couldn’t. I had to hold her back.”

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UNICEF Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn stressed that every child had the right to be vaccinated, even as COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe.

“Every year, UNICEF provides vaccinations for almost half of the world’s children,” she said. “Vaccines go hand in hand with our work in nutrition, sanitation, education, and child protection. It’s so important that this work continues, even as the world continues to respond to COVID-19.”

Baby Adah isn’t due to go back for her next round of routine vaccinations until she turns four years old.

“A wee while away,” says mum Rebecca. “Who knows, maybe we’ll have a COVID-19 vaccine by then.”

April 24-30 is World Immunisation Week. Vaccinations are vital, and without them many babies wouldn’t make it. In fact, up to three million children a year wouldn’t survive.