Did you know that 20 million children worldwide – that’s more than one in 10 – missed out on lifesaving vaccines, such as measles, diphtheria and tetanus in 2018? That’s according to new data out from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

Globally, since 2010, vaccination coverage with three doses of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) and one dose of the measles vaccine has stalled at around 86 percent. While high, this is not sufficient. 95 percent coverage is needed – globally, across countries, and communities – to protect against outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. 

“Vaccines are one of our most important tools for preventing outbreaks and keeping the world safe,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

“While most children today are being vaccinated, far too many are left behind. Unacceptably, it’s often those who are most at risk– the poorest, the most marginalised, those touched by conflict or forced from their homes – who are persistently missed.”

Most un-vaccinated children live in the poorest countries, and are disproportionately in fragile or conflict-affected states. Almost half are in just 16 countries – Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. 

Potential for polio in Australia 

Australia has a high rate of child vaccination overall, with the latest figures from the Department of Health indicating that 94.8 per cent of children aged 5 were fully immunised in the March quarter 2019, including 97 per cent of indigenous children.  These strong national figures can conceal lower vaccination rates in some communities, especially some inner-city suburbs and coastal communities. This worrying, worldwide trend of vaccine hesitancy has been highlighted by the World Health Organization as an emerging threat to global health. An article published  in ‘The Courier Mail’ in early July 2019 noted the decrease in the number of parents in city centres across southeast Queensland vaccinating their children against polio ran the risk of a return of the deadly disease.

The article by Matthew Killoran reports: “Analysis of Federal Health data shows parts of the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and even trendy inner-city Brisbane suburbs are among the worst in the state for children receiving the full array of childhood vaccinations.”

According to the article, “Inner-city Brisbane, including New Farm, South Brisbane and West End, had vaccination rates for all diseases below 90 per cent for two and five year olds.”

And, “vaccination rates against polio in the Gold Coast Hinterland have fallen below 80 per cent, while there have also been falls in Surfers Paradise, Noosa and the Sunshine Coast hinterland.”

Australia was declared free from polio in August 2000. A vaccination rate of 95 per cent is needed for “herd immunity” against infectious diseases.

Measles outbreaks reveal entrenched gaps in coverage, often over many years. 

Stark disparities in vaccine access persist across and within countries of all income levels. This has resulted in devastating measles outbreaks in many parts of the world – including countries that have high overall vaccination rates. 

In 2018, almost 350,000 measles cases were reported globally, more than doubling from 2017. 

“Measles is a real time indicator of where we have more work to do to fight preventable diseases,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director. “Because measles is so contagious, an outbreak points to communities that are missing out on vaccines due to access, costs or, in some places, complacency. We have to exhaust every effort to immunise every child.” 

High incidence and high coverage for measles can spark outbreaks

Several other countries with high incidence and high overall vaccination coverage have significant groups of people who have missed the measles vaccine in the past. This shows how low coverage over time or discrete communities of unvaccinated people can spark deadly outbreaks. 

Solutions for the deadly infectious diseases

RESULTS Australia is advocating for support to international partners such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which assist countries to strengthen their immunisation systems and outbreak response, through the vaccination of all children with routine immunisation, conducting emergency campaigns, and training and equipping health workers as an essential part of quality primary healthcare

Australia has an important role as a significant provider of assistance to the Asia-Pacific region, a Board member of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and a member of the World Health Organization, to provide funding and advocacy for action to accelerate progress towards the Global Vaccination Action Program goals

“Now, we need the Australian Government to support increased global vaccination coverage by pledging continued support to Gavi and to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative when they seek renewed funding in late 2019 and 2020,” said Amelia Christie, CEO of RESULTS Australia.