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Low vaccination rates in Asia Pacific will compound impacts of COVID-19, warns ChildFund Australia

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Low rates of vaccinations for existing infectious diseases will compound the impacts of a COVID-19 outbreak in developing countries on Australia’s doorstep, ChildFund Australia warned today.

ChildFund Australia Health Advisor Tracy Yuen said many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Timor-Leste, already have low rates of vaccination due to poor health infrastructure.

“The health systems in these nations are already struggling to treat and prevent diseases that have spread due to low vaccination rates. We saw an example of this during the measles outbreak in Samoa last year.

“We are also deeply concerned that while existing healthcare resources are redeployed to respond to the virus, so many of these countries will not be left with any capacity to continue offering many routine programs, like immunisation. In some countries right now, they have already been halted.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Existing low vaccination rates will compound the health impacts of the pandemic on people and health systems while, over the longer term, the consequences of COVID-19 mean that routine vaccination programs will be a low priority.”

Last week, the United Nations announced that polio vaccination campaigns have been suspended, and measles immunisation campaigns have stopped in at least 23 countries.

“The economic downturn will also have a major impact on health programming. Even when the risk of COVID-19 is behind us, the global recession will mean many countries just don’t have the funds for mass scale immunisation.

“In countries like PNG, health services are already stretched. When you add a new infectious disease – like COVID-19 – into the equation, the impact will be severe both in the short and longer-term.”

 

ChildFund Australia implements a range of child-focused development programs in the Asia-Pacific region and has serious concerns about the potential impact of COVID-19 in those developing countries where the health infrastructure is poor.

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 can have a detrimental and long-term impact on children in the communities where ChildFund works; these children are already highly vulnerable and COVID-19 not only threatens their physical health and wellbeing, but the hard-fought development advances of the past 20 years.

  • Children who are already malnourished have weakened immune systems and are therefore less able to fight infection.
  • Containment procedures can mean children are unable to attend school; education is vital for children if they are to break the cycle of disadvantage.
  • In many developing communities, children are cared for by grandparents while their parents pursue work; COVID-19 presents a much greater health risk for older adults.
  • Children and families in remote areas may not have access to nearby health facilities if they contract the virus.
  • The restrictions that come with COVID-19 threaten to plunge the working poor back into poverty and exacerbate economic hardships for the millions of poor living in those communities and countries where ChildFund works.

The economic impact of the virus should not be underestimated and is being felt across the globe. In developing communities, many parents may find themselves out of work due to business closures or containment procedures.

A reduction in household income can mean that families are forced to cut back on spending in essential areas such as education, nutritious food and healthcare for their children. Families risk back-sliding into extreme poverty, and ChildFund’s long-term development programs will be crucial in helping affected communities once the immediate danger of the virus has passed.

Currently ChildFund is closely monitoring the COVID-19 crisis in all countries where we work, working with relevant government partners and health professionals to promote prevention messages.

Preventing the spread of the disease is the best course of action in countries where testing is weak and expensive, and healthcare systems are already stretched.

In all communities, ChildFund is ramping up its programs in disease prevention and containment. This includes raising awareness of the importance of hand-washing, checking that water and sanitation facilities in local communities are safe and disease-free, and ensuring that health messages about COVID-19 are being amplified in school settings.

Our primary objective is to ensure children and families can protect themselves and their wider community. In those countries where ChildFund is supporting government health services, our staff will continue to partner with the relevant authorities and their work to test and treat those affected.

COVID-19 is affecting families across the globe, and we urge our many Australian supporters to take all active steps to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. This really is a time for us to all think and act as global citizens.