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In addition to the direct health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, routine immunization of children for vaccine-preventable diseases has also suffered. Quantitative studies have shown evidence of backsliding in routine immunization, i.e., children failing to receive their vaccinations on schedule. Pandemic restrictions were the cause for some of this behavior, and there are signs that subsequent campaigns and supply-side initiatives have influenced trends toward routine immunization catch-up. However, limited qualitative research indicates that the pandemic may have disrupted parents/caregivers’ decision-making processes around routine immunization, and their attitudes toward vaccination, in ways that could have long-term effects on rates of immunization. Further behavioral research can help elucidate this and provide guidance to policymakers to boost immunization uptake.
This policy article explores the decision dynamics leading to missed routine immunization doses during the pandemic, through an analysis of secondary literature, a summary of primary-research studies on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy conducted during the pandemic across Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Pakistan, and a summary of a study on the impact of COVID-19 on routine immunization uptake in South Africa.
We found that the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted prior patterns of engagement with the health system, turning routine immunization from a default decision for parents/caregivers into an “active decision-making” moment. Restrictions on movement, limited routine immunization supplies and other practical impediments combined with fear of contracting COVID-19 at health facilities, misinformation, and fear of vaccine side-effects, creating an emergent behavior of missed immunization doses during the pandemic period. We also found that hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines may be transferred onto previously accepted vaccines, impacting routine immunization.
We identified three decision-making pathways for routine immunization uptake among South African parents/caregivers once the lockdowns were lifted: the “path of procrastination,” the “path of doubt,” and the “path of persistence.” We highlight the policy implications of these, and suggest potential interventions to increase routine immunization uptake for parents/caregivers on each path, as well as for general communications, service delivery, and pandemic readiness.
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