Vaccination programs against diseases such as measles and polio were disrupted by global obsession with the Covid pandemic. Photo: iStock

The “seen” cost of the Covid-19 pandemic has been all too obvious – more than 6 million directly related deaths worldwide to date, catastrophic job losses, collapsed businesses, widespread financial distress, disrupted education for millions of children and the derailing of governments’ plans for years to come.

The full extent of the unseen costs has yet to emerge, but the World Health Organization’s recent Immunization Week offered a chilling glimpse of one impending fallout from the pandemic bomb.

By demanding the full attention of the world’s health services, the pandemic has disrupted vaccination programs worldwide, especially in poorer countries that were already struggling to implement them. 

As of April 1, 57 vaccine-preventable disease campaigns in 43 countries that were scheduled to take place since the start of the pandemic remained on hold, affecting 203 million people, mostly children.

Also read: Business sector urged to help reboot vax programs

Of these, 19 are measles campaigns, and a recent dramatic resurgence of measles is an ominous sign of worse to come.

Measles is highly contagious and, when vaccination levels decline, cases show up quickly. This means the outbreaks we are seeing now, say the WHO and UN children’s agency UNICEF (the world’s largest provider of vaccines), “forewarn of outbreaks of other diseases that do not spread as rapidly.”

Thanks to the measles vaccination, the number of deaths worldwide from the disease fell 73% between 2000 and 2018, saving an estimated 23 million lives.

In 2018, when 86% of the world’s children were vaccinated, there were still about 140,000 deaths from measles. But before the introduction of the vaccine in 1963, major epidemics swept the world every two or three years, each wave claiming more than 2.5 million young lives.

During the pandemic, about 40 countries are known to have put off their measles vaccination programs. As a result, the number of reported global cases increased by 79% in the first two months of this year compared with January and February 2021, posing a threat to millions of children in 2022. The worst outbreaks have been in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Another extremely serious vaccine-preventable disease is polio, which mainly affects children under five. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and between 5% and 10% of paralyzed children die, in unimaginable distress, when their breathing muscles cease to work.

Before the pandemic, polio was on the brink of being consigned to history, as smallpox was in 1980, and had been reduced to just two remaining footholds and a handful of cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But in February the WHO polio emergency committee announced that a case had been found in Africa, where the disease had been declared eradicated in 2014. The victim was a three-year-old child in Malawi, who had been paralyzed after contracting a strain of the virus last seen in Pakistan in 2019.

The committee warned that, with the usual issues of weak immunization systems in many countries compounded by the diversion of attention and funds to the Covid pandemic, the risk of the international spread of polio was now worryingly high.

“As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio,” it said. “Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”

It isn’t just measles and polio. In 2020, as health systems were overwhelmed by Covid-19, an estimated 23 million children worldwide missed out on a whole range of basic childhood vaccines.

Last month the WHO and UNICEF issued a joint warning that conditions were now ripe for major global outbreaks of multiple vaccine-preventable diseases among children, with the disruption of vaccination programs now being compounded by the widespread relaxation of social distancing and other infection-prevention measures.

And, says the WHO, there is another very real threat to the lives of millions of children worldwide – the “flood of disinformation” on social media, provoked by the Covid pandemic, that has “undermined people’s confidence in vaccines.”

Which brings us to the catastrophic capture of Twitter by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man.

A self-declared “free-speech absolutist,” Musk’s big plan for the social-media platform is to remove all restrictions on all users, freeing anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists to spread their toxic disinformation without any risk of being shut down.

Imagine the difference Musk might have made if, instead of investing his US$44 billion in his vanity project, he had given it to a good cause, such as the WHO, or UNICEF, or the UN World Food Program.

Instead, with the insufferable know-it-all arrogance of the mindlessly wealthy, he appears actually to despise the very organizations whose work daily saves innumerable lives.

Last year he tweeted that he would give $6 billion to the World Food Program if it could tell him “exactly how $6B will solve world hunger.”

This, of course, missed the point entirely. As the WFP says on its website, “today, 690 million people around the world will go to bed on an empty stomach. But your gift means that one less child will be at risk of starvation tonight.”

Mocking that endeavor is a particularly callous gesture from a man who need never go hungry.

Far worse, however, is Musk’s plan to give a free pass to every conspiracy theorist on Twitter, which will be a death sentence for any child unfortunate enough to have been born to gullible parents easily convinced that governments are out to get them, and that the peddlers of toxic misinformation on social media have their best interests at heart.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.