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COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, immunization services essential, says WHO regional director for Europe

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Today, April 30, 2020, it is three months since the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general declared a public health emergency of international concern over the outbreak of novel coronavirus, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe issued the following statement;

Now, as in past weeks, the situation in the European region remains serious. In broad terms, while plateauing in western Europe, the gradient of the epi-curve steepens as we look east.

Across the region, cumulative cases have increased by 15 percent in the past 7 days and now stand at 1,408,266 cases. Deaths have risen by 18 percent over the same period. Tragically, 129,344 people in Europe have now lost their lives. My thoughts and deepest sympathy are with the families and loved ones of those we have lost.

Today, the European region accounts for 46 percent of cases and 63 percent of deaths globally. The region remains very much in the grip of this pandemic.

Spain, followed by Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany and France still have the highest number of cases. But following social and physical distancing measures introduced some weeks ago, we are now seeing evidence of a plateau or reduction in the number of new cases. We must monitor this positive development very closely.

In the eastern part of the region – Belarus, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Ukraine – cases have increased in the past week, while in Turkey the situation is stabilizing. Here, we must maintain the full arsenal of measures we have to suppress transmission.

As these figures demonstrate: the situation across our region is not uniform. Every country is mapping out its route to a new normal, and every country is at a different place.

Of the 44 countries in the European Region that have implemented partial or full domestic movement restrictions, 21 countries have started easing some of these measures to different degrees, and a further 11 are planning to do so in the coming days.

As I have said before – this virus is unforgiving – we must remain vigilant, persevere, and be patient, ready to ramp-up measures as and when needed.

Last week, we issued essential guidance for countries considering and planning COVID-19 transition. In that guidance, we emphasized that health systems must have the capacity to operate along a dual-track – continuing to deliver regular health services, whilst responding aggressively to COVID-19.

It is clear that both health service and society-wide measures put in place to address COVID-19 have had an effect both on the delivery of other health services, and on people accessing such services. Other vital health services have been “crowded out”.

I have two key messages for you today.

  1. To governments and health authorities: I urge you to find ways to reintroduce other health services safely and quickly, once community transmission is under control.
  2. To people and communities: Ensure your child is vaccinated. If you have concerns about accessing these services there are ways to do so safely.

So let’s look more closely at immunization. Last week we marked European Immunization Week.

Immunization is one of the most effective health tools we have, protecting children from many diseases that would otherwise be debilitating or deadly. Now, as scientists work together across the globe to develop a safe, effective vaccine against COVID-19, we are once again reminded of how precious vaccines are. I am happy to be joined by our chair of the European Technical Advisory Group of Experts Dr Adam Finn today, on this panel.

Since 2017, the European region has been experiencing a resurgence of measles. In 2018 over 500,000 children missed their first dose of measles vaccination. In 2019 over 100,000 people across all age groups were infected, as a result of this and long-standing immunization gaps. Today, measles continues to spread in some parts of the region – affecting over 6000 people in the first two months of this year.

We cannot allow this situation to worsen

We should do everything within our powers to prevent children from becoming victims of this pandemic due to their vulnerability to vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, diphtheria, mumps, and rubella.
COVID-19 cannot be permitted to claim this collateral damage.

We are concerned that countries may have seen interruptions in routine immunization services, including among vulnerable groups, and the interruption of measles outbreak response activities. To governments and health authorities, I say this – immunization services are essential. If they have been interrupted, catch up measures must be taken as quickly as possible. We cannot allow the impact of COVID-19 to be amplified by neglecting other vital health protection measures.

I do appreciate that during COVID-19 countries have found new and innovative ways of reaching children, using temporary vaccination points, for example. Health professionals delivering immunization programmes across the region are working hard to ensure that as many children as possible have access to vaccine services while preventing COVID-19 infection. Some health services have introduced parallel tracks, with regular check-ups and vaccinations for babies staggered to ensure limited indoor waiting times, and kept fully separate from curative care for others. These efforts are very welcome, and I also commend the determination of parents and caregivers to keep their children safe.

I urge countries to continue prioritizing immunization, innovating services, communicating to parents, and meticulously tracking every single missed vaccination. Catch up as quickly as possible where needed.

To parents: make no mistake, the safest choice also during this pandemic is to vaccinate your children. Use this opportunity to protect them and others from diseases that we can prevent.

And this leads me to my final message for all of us: COVID-19 is not going away any time soon.

Dual track health systems can offer the flexibility and resilience needed to manage repeated waves of coronavirus infections and the increasing demand for other services. The new COVID-19 Health System Response Monitor, launched by the WHO regional office, the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, together with the European Commission is collating evidence of how health systems are responding to the pandemic. I urge you all to use that valuable resource.

We must be alert and open to new ways of delivering and receiving health care. We cannot risk seeing the tragedy of COVID-19 mirrored in a second catastrophe of ill health from other causes.

In short;

  1. To authorities: maintain a dual-track health service.
  2. To the public: keep using immunization services where available.

By doing so, we leave no one behind.



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