New data shows that monthly immunization service uptake has surpassed pre-COVID-19 levels in Bangladesh despite the challenges faced by parents, communities and health services during the pandemic.
“This is a remarkable achievement by the Government of Bangladesh, and it will no doubt save the lives of thousands of children. UNICEF is committed to supporting immunization efforts to ensure that this momentum is sustained, and no child is left behind,” said Veera Mendonca, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Bangladesh on Monday welcoming the new data.
UNICEF is the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses of vaccines annually for routine immunization and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries including Bangladesh.
The national immunization programme in Bangladesh provides vaccines against 10 diseases including tuberculosis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis-B, haemophilus influenzae type-B, pneumococcus, poliomyelitis, measles and rubella.
As coronavirus began to spread earlier this year and Bangladesh effectively went into lockdown, health services were severely impacted. Despite initial challenges, UNICEF ensured the delivery of critical vaccine supplies as the Government continued to roll out this core service.
“Many parents were afraid to leave their homes to vaccinate their children due to the lockdown restrictions, while others were unaware that immunization services were continuing. As a result, we experienced a major drop in vaccination uptake between March and May,” said Dr Md Shamsul Haque, Line Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health, Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).
The national immunization programme targets 3.8 million children per year in Bangladesh.
In April and May, over 284,000 children missed their pentavalent vaccine, almost half the monthly target and pre-COVID coverage levels.
To address the situation, MoHFW has taken systematic action to revitalize the immunization programme with support from partners.
Vaccine stock and vaccination sessions were closely monitored.
UNICEF supported the roll-out of a communications campaign to encourage parents to vaccinate their children and safeguard their health, addressing fears and concerns stemmed by the pandemic.
At the same time, UNICEF and WHO supported the Government of Bangladesh to develop guidelines and training for health workers on safe vaccinations during COVID-19 as well as on infection prevention and control.
UNICEF has also provided personal protective and medical equipment for a to-date value of $12 million to support national efforts to combat the pandemic.
Following the rapid roll out of training for health workers, bolstered by community awareness raising campaigns, immunization rates began to recover from June onwards.
“We are intensively identifying the children who missed out on vaccination and closely engaging with parents and caregivers to build trust. In June and July, we exceeded pre-COVID coverage levels reaching over 100 per cent of our monthly target. We plan to close the immunization gap with additional catch-up activities for children,” said Dr. Mowla Baksh Chaudhury, Programme Manager, Expanded Programme on Immunization, DGHS, MOHFW.
Despite significant immunization gains, there are also areas of increasing concern.
To hamper the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Bangladesh was one of several countries that postponed its yearly measles-rubella campaign, which was due to take place in March 2020.
Since then, there have been several local measles outbreaks, and while these have been suppressed, it is now critical to conduct the national measles-rubella campaign before the end of 2020.
Targeting 34 million children aged between nine months and nine years, the campaign will protect children from deadly and disabling diseases.
“Immunization is one of the most cost-effective lifesaving medical interventions we have. UNICEF remains steadfast in our commitment to child survival in Bangladesh, and we look forward to supporting an expedited relaunch of the measles-rubella campaign,” said Veera Mendonca, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Bangladesh.