The World Health Organisation today urged countries, including Nepal, in the South-East Asia region to enhance routine immunisation along with the ongoing efforts to boost the COV- ID-19 vaccination coverage.

The pandemic has caused disruption of essential immunisation services and surveillance, thereby increasing the vulnerability of vaccine preventable diseases.

Though efforts are being made, substantial efforts must be made especially at the sub-national level to reach the undeserved population," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO South-East Asia at the 74th regional committee meeting hosted by Nepal.

Recalling the strong progress being made until the onset of the pandemic, the regional director said, the region was in a historically best position for alleviating vaccine preventable disease with 91 per cent coverage with three doses of DTP vaccine (DTP3) by 2019. Ten out of 11 countries had achieved more than 90 per cent DTP3 coverage.

Though routine immunisation services were among the first essential services that countries began to restore during the pandemic, the DTP3 coverage in the region dipped to 85 per cent in 2020. The number of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children increased to 4.9 million compared to three million in 2019. Surveillance of vaccine preventable diseases was also affected.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a serious impact on implementation of strategies for measles and rubella elimination, a flagship priority in the region.

The estimated coverage with the first dose of measles-containing vaccine (MCV1) in the Region declined to 88 per cent in 2020 compared to 94 per cent in 2019. Similarly, coverage with the second dose of measles-containing vaccine declined to 78 per cent in 2020 compared to 83 per cent in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in surveillance gaps in several countries and delayed implementation of mass vaccination campaigns and other immunisation-related activities.

"There is an urgent need to repair the damage caused by COVID-19, regain the momentum achieved in the previous decade, and protect infants, young people and adults with life-saving vaccines," said Dr Khetrapal Singh. The ongoing Regional Committee meeting discussed the Strategic Framework for the South-East Asia Regional Vaccine Action Plan 2022−2030, which focuses on the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccination and restoration of immunisation systems and vaccine-preventable disease surveillance due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need to ensure that strategies are in place to maintain and enhance routine immunisation without causing impact on the efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates, the regional director said.

"Adequate human resources for routine immunisation and COVID-19 vaccination, efforts to build confidence among people to access immunisation services and having Standard Operating Procedures in place so as to enhance immunisation activities immediately following cessation of lockdown periods are some of the critical measures that need to be taken," she said.

"Implementation of the framework will need high-level political and programmatic commitment and partner collaboration to which WHO is committed," said the regional director.

According to a press release issued by the WHO, countries in the Region have been making unprecedented efforts to expand COVID-19 vaccination coverage with over 915 million doses being administered across the region.

The availability of more vaccine doses in recent weeks has helped scale up the vaccine coverage.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the region has maintained its status of eradicating polio and eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus. Measles elimination has been achieved and maintained in five countries, while two of these countries have also achieved rubella elimination.

Four countries have been verified as achieving hepatitis B control through immunisation.

The Regional Committee meet is the annual governing body meet of WHO South- East Asia Region being hosted by Nepal. The meet is being held virtually for the second consecutive year in view of the pandemic.

A version of this article appears in the print on September 9 2021, of The Himalayan Times.