Confidence in childhood vaccines dropped internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling by as much as 44 percentage points in some countries, according to a report from UNICEF.
The report, entitled “The State of the World’s Children 2023: For Every Child, Vaccination,” found that confidence dropped in 52 of the 55 countries surveyed, with China, India and Mexico being the only three countries where the perception of the importance of vaccines stayed the same or improved. Confidence dropped by more than a third in South Korea, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Ghana and Senegal since the pandemic began.
Researchers did still find that confidence in childhood vaccines overall remains mostly strong, with more than 80 percent of those surveyed in nearly half of the 55 countries saying vaccines are important for children to have.
But they warned that factors like uncertainty about the response to the pandemic, access to misleading information, declining trust in experts and political polarization could be allowing vaccine hesitancy to grow.
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a release that the data is a “worrying warning signal.” She said officials must not allow confidence in vaccines to become “another victim of the pandemic” or many children could die from preventable diseases like measles or diphtheria.
“At the height of the pandemic, scientists rapidly developed vaccines that saved countless lives. But despite this historic achievement, fear and disinformation about all types of vaccines circulated as widely as the virus itself,” Russell said.
The release states that the drop in confidence coincides with the largest sustained decrease in childhood immunizations in three decades, which was caused by the pandemic. It states that the pandemic disrupted childhood vaccinations in almost every country because of “intense demands” on health care systems, stay-at-home measures, workforce shortages and immunization resources being diverted to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
The report states that 67 million children missed vaccinations between 2019 and 2021, and children born just before or during the pandemic are getting past the age where they would normally be vaccinated for a wide range of diseases.
Researchers also found that the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities, as the children who were most impacted by the drop in childhood vaccines were those living in the poorest, most remote and most marginalized communities.
UNICEF concluded that governments must “double-down” on increasing funding for vaccination efforts and free up available resources, including COVID-19 funds, to accelerate these efforts.
The report calls on world governments to identify and reach all children who missed vaccinations during the pandemic, build greater confidence in vaccines and prioritize funding for immunizations and primary health care. It also states that governments should invest in female health care workers, “innovation” and local manufacturing to build up more resilient health care systems.
“We know all too well that diseases do not respect borders. Routine immunizations and strong health systems are our best shot at preventing future pandemics, unnecessary deaths and suffering,” Russell said.