COVID-19 can reverse decades of progress in eliminating child deaths: UN

Almost 68% of 77 countries surveyed reported at least some disruption in health checks and immunisation services, which may lead to increase in child mortality, says UNICEF data

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 09 September 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in major disruptions to health services that can undo decades of hard-won progress in preventing child deaths, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

A UNICEF survey conducted across 77 countries in June 2020 found that almost 68 per cent of countries reported at least some disruption in health checks for children and immunisation services. At least 63 per cent countries reported disruptions in antenatal checkups and 59 per cent in post-natal care.

The number of global under-five deaths had dropped to its lowest on record in 2019: To 5.2 million from 12.5 million in 1990, according to new mortality estimates released by UNICEF, the WHO, the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Bank Group.

With the COVID-19 pandemic imposing disruptions in child and maternal health services, health checkups, vaccinations and prenatal and post-natal care have suffered immensely.  

“The global community has come too far towards eliminating preventable child deaths to allow the COVID-19 pandemic to stop us in our tracks,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

“When children are denied access to health services because the system is overrun, and when women are afraid to give birth at the hospital for fear of infection, they, too, may become casualties of COVID-19. Without urgent investments to re-start disrupted health systems and services, millions of children under five, especially newborns, could die,” she added.

WHO survey published August 2020 based on responses from 105 countries revealed that 52 per cent of countries reported disruptions in health services for sick children and 51 per cent in services for management of malnutrition.

Health interventions such as these are critical for stopping preventable newborn and child deaths. For example, women who receive care by professional midwives trained according to internationals standards are 16 per cent less likely to lose their baby and 24 per cent less likely to experience pre-term birth, according to WHO.

"The fact that today more children live to see their first birthday than any time in history is a true mark of what can be achieved when the world puts health and well-being at the centre of our response,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“Now, we must not let the COVID-19 pandemic turn back remarkable progress for our children and future generations,” he said. 

Based on the responses from countries that participated in the UNICEF and WHO surveys, the most commonly cited reasons for health service disruptions included

  • Parents avoiding health centers for fear of infection
  • Transport restrictions
  • Suspension or closure of services and facilities
  • Fewer healthcare workers due to diversions or fear of infection due to shortages in personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves
  • Greater financial difficulties

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen are among the hardest-hit countries, the agencies warned.

In May, initial modelling by Johns Hopkins University showed that almost 6,000 additional children could die per day due to disruptions due to COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put years of global progress to end preventable child deaths in serious jeopardy,” said Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank.

“It is essential to protect life-saving services which have been key to reducing child mortality. We will continue to work with governments and partners to reinforce healthcare systems to ensure mothers and children get the services they need,” he added.

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