Covid Sparked Largest Sustained Decline In Global Childhood Vaccinations In 30 Years, WHO Says


The Covid-19 pandemic helped fuel the largest continuous decline in global childhood vaccinations in three decades from 2019 to 2021, according to data released Thursday by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, which called the numbers a “red alert for child health.”

Key Facts

Roughly 25 million children in 2021 alone missed one or more doses of a vaccine called DPT that’s seen as a marker of childhood immunization coverage—it combats diphtheria (a severe bacterial infection), tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough)—up from 2 million who missed one or more doses in 2020 and 6 million from 2019.

The percentage of children who received three doses of DPT dropped 5 points to 81% between 2019 and 2021, according to the data.

Declines were steepest in low and middle-income countries, including those in East Asia and the Pacific, though coverage dropped in every world region.

The consequences of the drop in vaccinations “will be measured in lives,” UNICEF’s Executive Director Catherine Russell said in a statement, adding the problem could lead to more outbreaks of preventable diseases, more sick children and “greater pressure on already strained health systems.”

Surprising Fact

Only 15% of children around the world have had the first dose of the human papillomavirus vaccine, which prevents infections that cause cervical and other cancers, according to UNICEF and the WHO, despite the first vaccines being authorized 15 years ago.

Big Number

18 million. That’s how many children did not receive a single dose of the DPT vaccine in 2021.


The share of eligible children who had the first dose of the measles vaccines dropped to 81% in 2021, the lowest level since 2008, according to UNICEF and the WHO. The WHO warned in April of a rise in measles outbreaks around the world, with 17,338 cases reported in January and February 2022, up from 9,665 cases during the same period in 2021. The organization said pandemic-related disruptions, including difficulty accessing vaccines, were leaving children vulnerable to the disease, which spreads quickly as vaccination levels decline.

Key Background

UNICEF said a slew of factors led to a drop in vaccination coverage, including an increased number of children living in zones of conflict where officials struggle to offer access to vaccination, a surge in misinformation as well as problems caused by Covid such as supply chain disruptions and containment measures that limited access to immunizations. The Covid-19 pandemic led to significant disruptions in access to routine health care in the U.S. and around the world, with many delaying preventative care due to safety concerns and overburdened health-care systems. Experts hoped 2021 would offer an opportunity to make up for immunization progress lost during 2020, but DPT vaccination fell to the lowest level since 2008, with uptake for several other vaccines also declining. Tackling Covid should go “hand-in-hand” with vaccinating against diseases like measles and pneumonia, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, adding it is “possible to do both” at the same time.

Further Reading

Venezuela’s alarmingly low vaccine rate among worst in world (Associated Press)