MORE THAN A YEAR into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to feel paralyzed by the challenges we are facing in the Philippines. Many are suffering from the effects of the pandemic, especially children. Not being able to go to school, lacking access to essential health and nutrition services, and being at increased risk of abuse and mental health issues, the effect of this pandemic will be felt by children until they grow up to become adults.
Younger children in the Philippines are beset with yet another challenge: being unprotected from diseases that are preventable through vaccines that are safe, effective and, most of all, free. In the country today, only 62% of children are fully immunized (January-November 2020), far from the target 95%. In 2019, the Philippines was among the top nine countries with babies that had not received a single vaccine against preventable disease, together with Nigeria, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Angola. This puts children under increased risk of infections that can cause paralysis or even death, such as polio and measles.
As we commemorate World Immunization Week on April 24-30, we at UNICEF look to these children and their families who need support. Vaccines are amongst the greatest advances of modern medicine. They have protected children against vaccine preventable diseases and lifelong disabilities, saving millions of lives every year. Although fewer children are dying now than 30 years ago, one quarter of all deaths among children under five are from pneumonia, diarrhea, and measles — a majority could have been prevented through vaccination.
UNICEF, as it celebrates its 75th anniversary, has been in the Philippines working hand in hand with government and partners. UNICEF is fighting for a world where no child dies from a preventable cause and all children realize their right to good health. As we fight COVID-19, our aim is not just to return to normal, because for millions of children around the world, normal was never good enough. We need to redouble our efforts by investing in essential services that reach all children and reimagine an efficient health system that works for everyone.
We call on the government to secure sustained investments in routine immunization, invest in cold chain facilities, data, training and management, fair and efficient COVID-19 vaccinations, and strengthening vaccine trust and confidence. We call on civil society, local government officials, parents, teachers, social workers, influencers, children, and youth to become vaccine champions.
Immunization is everyone’s responsibility: We have a historic opportunity to both end this pandemic and set out a pathway for the eradication of preventable disease among children and adolescents. But this requires a collective effort to reach every child and community with vaccines and health services, continue taking key preventative measures, and have confidence in the life-saving power of vaccines.
Dr. Malalay Ahmadzai is the Chief of Health and Nutrition at UNICEF Philippines.