Routine childhood vaccine benefits outweigh Covid-19 risks, study finds

  • Many immunisation programmes in low-income countries were disrupted because of Covid-19
  • Vaccination helps to lower death rates in children
  • The benefits of routine vaccination still outweigh Covid-19 related risks

It is well known that vaccines are responsible for improving health and decreasing death rates among children in low-income countries. However, as Covid-19 swept across the globe, national immunisation programmes became collateral damage – seen as placing too much of a burden on health systems pressured by the new coronavirus.

With the physical distancing measures that Covid-19 requires, people are also more hesitant to take their children for their regular immunisations.

But a recent study published in The Lancet Global Health compared the benefits of getting vaccinated with the risks introduced by Covid-19.

Scenario approach used

The study authors used a high-impact and low-impact scenario to approximate death in children that could be caused by decreased numbers of vaccinations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They looked at all 54 countries of Africa and found that the number of deaths prevented through vaccine programmes outnumbered the projected deaths caused by Covid-19.

Through a mathematical model, they determined that the number of Covid-19 deaths would be similar to other countries that were affected earlier during the pandemic, assuming that 60% of the population would be infected and that regular health services be disrupted for at least six months.

The researchers focused mostly on deaths caused by and the impact of vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type b and Streptococcus pneumoniae (bacterial causes of pneumonia and meningitis), rotavirus, measles, rubella, meningitis A and yellow fever. They used the same vaccine as in 2018.

More excess deaths than with Covid-19

According to the study findings, suspended vaccination programmes because of Covid-19 could lead to as many as 702 000 childhood deaths across Africa.

Even in a more conservative scenario, the number of deaths due to preventable disease and lack of vaccination still outweigh the number of deaths that could be caused by Covid-19.

These findings were similar across all 54 African countries investigated in the research. While the study shows the health benefits of vaccination in children, it also shows that the risk of Covid-19 contracted in a clinic setting would more likely affect the older adults in the same household, rather than the vaccinated children. 

Routine vaccinations disrupted by Covid-19

Dr Tewodaj Mengistu, co-author of the study, from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Switzerland, stated in a news release: "Routine immunisation programmes are facing enormous disruption across the globe due to this pandemic. Lockdowns make it harder for vaccinators and parents to reach vaccination sessions, health workers are being diverted to Covid-19 response, and misinformation and fear are keeping parents away. This important study shows just how big an impact this could have, risking the resurgence of diseases that vaccines have kept largely at bay.”

Dr Emily Dansereau, co-author and programme officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USA, said: "Across the African continent, many essential health services – from immunisation to antenatal care to HIV and TB services – are experiencing significant challenges in the face of COovid-19. To address these new challenges and build resilient health systems, countries are exploring how to rethink health service delivery and are embracing innovative approaches to reach women, children and families with high-quality support and care."

The research concluded that childhood immunisation should be sustained as far as possible, despite Covid-19. Other factors such as logistical issues, staff shortages and reallocation of resources should be addressed during the pandemic.

READ | Evidence mounts that TB vaccine might help protect against Covid-19

Image credit: Getty Images

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