Rajamma Pawar is scared to take her seven-months old son, Vyankatesh, to hospital for vaccination.
Pune: Vaccination of babies between zero to twelve months of age has shown a decline of over 25% in Maharashtra due to several issues arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic. State officials said that government hospitals and its staff members were attending to COVID-19 patients, causing a disruption in services like vaccination.
Sangita Pathare (name changed), an Anganwadi Worker (AWW) who stays at the Shivajinagar slum, avoided the Dalvi Hospital, a facility where she takes her daughter for regular vaccination. The hospital, run by the Pune Municipal Corporation, is not dedicated to COVID-19. AWWs are supposed to alert newly mothers to take their babies for vaccination. However, Pathare could not muster enough courage to take her own baby to the hospital.
Babies should be given BCG, Hepatitis B and Oral Polio Vaccines (OPV) at birth and the Inactivated Polio Vaccine in the 14th week. All three vaccines – OPV, Pentavalent and Rotavirus – are to be given in the sixth, tenth and fourteenth week. Vaccines for measles and Vitamin A needs to be given after nine months, as per the Universal Immunisation Program.
The third OPV, given in the 14th week, was administered to over 1,11,000 babies in April and May; it is generally given to over 1,37,000 babies per month. Over 1,60,000 babies get fully immunised every month but in the months of April and May the number was not more than 1,20,000. The pandemic has caused close to a 25% decrease in vaccination.
From behind clothes hanging on a wire outside her tin home, Anusaya Shinde, a 22-year-old home-maker of the Vadar tribe, said that her husband had not taken her eight-month-old child to a health centre since March, due to COVID-19. With Chandrakala in her hands, Anusaya said: “We could not go back to our village in Umarga in Osmanabad district due to the lockdown. My husband would take our baby there for vaccinations.”
Anusaya lives in the Ektanagar slum at Pashan, Pune. Over four families of the Vadar tribe from her village stay in 10X10 ft rooms made of tin. Seven-month-old Venkatesh, the son of Rajamma Pawar, has not been vaccinated in the last four months.
Rajamma, whose husband breaks stones in quarries and earns about Rs 2,000 per week, said: “We might get infected if we visit the hospital. It is better not to give him vaccines now.”
A local official, who wished to remain anonymous, said that vaccination in tribal areas is done through an outreach program by a team of Rashtriya Bal Suraksha Karyakram (RBSK). RBSK does not have sufficient staff and could not reach tribal belts for vaccination as they do on a particular day, each month.
“It is hard to convince tribal people to visit hospitals in general. They would not agree to go now during the pandemic. We need to pay visits to each home to recover for the lost time for the better health of the kids in future,” he added.
The alarming decline in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines might threaten reverse a hard-fought battle to reach more children and adolescents with a wider range of vaccines, according to a warning issued by UNICEF after it released data that said there was a decrease in vaccination across the world.
Dr. Dilip Patil, Deputy Director, Vaccines, State Family Welfare Bureau (SFWB), accepted that the vaccination percentage has been going down since the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. “People are scared to visit government hospitals. Many government hospitals have been converted into full-time COVID-19 facilities and staff at government healthcare facilities were given COVID-19 related tasks. It has resulted in a decrease in vaccination,” he said.
Patil added that percentage of vaccination could actually be higher since many health officials could not update the data due to various reasons. However, he admitted that the number is lower than their target.
“Special staff has been deployed temporarily for COVID-19. Our regular staff will resume routine vaccination work and the state is committed to recover,” he added.
The latest data on vaccine coverage estimates from WHO and UNICEF for 2019 shows that improvements, such as the expansion of the HPV vaccine to 106 countries, and greater protection for children against more diseases are in danger of lapsing. This is the first time in 28 years that the world could see a reduction in DTP3 coverage – the marker for immunisation coverage within and across countries.