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Pandemic leads to sharp decline in child vaccination.

The global coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp fall in the number of children being vaccinated, the United Nations (UN) says.

The decline in immunisation against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough during the first four months of the year is the first in nearly three decades.

Head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, said vaccines are a powerful public health tool and that suffering and death caused by children missing out on vaccines could dwarf that caused by the virus.

Immunisation programmes in three-quarters of the more than 80 countries that responded to a UN survey have been disrupted, Unicef and the WHO said.

They said the disruptions were linked to a lack of personal protective equipment for health workers, travel restrictions, low health worker staffing levels and a reluctance to leave home, all of which saw programmes curbed or shut down.

By May this year at least 30 measles vaccinations campaigns had been cancelled or were at risk.

Measles outbreaks were already rising before the pandemic, with 10m people infected in 2018 and 140,000 deaths, most of whom were children, according to UN data.

Unicef head, Henriette Fore, said the coronavirus had made routine vaccinations “a daunting challenge.”

She said: "We must prevent a further deterioration in vaccine coverage before children's lives are threatened by other diseases. We cannot trade one health crisis for another."

Progress on immunisation was already stalling before the pandemic, the UN agencies said.

In 2019, nearly 14m children, more than half of them in Africa, did not get life-saving vaccines against diseases such as measles and diphtheria.

Two-thirds of them were in 10 countries: Angola, Brazil, DR Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and The Philippines.

Meanwhile, historically high rates of immunisation had fallen in Latin America and the Caribbean, the UN said, with immunisation coverage falling by at least 14% in Brazil, Bolivia, Haiti and Venezuela during the past decade.

The WHO said: "The likelihood that a child born today will be fully vaccinated with all the globally recommended vaccines by the time she reaches the age of five is less than 20 percent."

It is estimated that immunisations save up to 3m lives a year by protecting children against serious diseases.

The Unicef programme is specifically targeted at children who would otherwise struggle to receive good quality health care, but millions still go without protection, and it is estimated that more than 1.5m people die each year from diseases that vaccines could prevent.