Disruptions to health services due to the coronavirus pandemic could reverse decades of progress in reducing child mortality, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The number of infant deaths dropped to 5.2 million in 2019 – the lowest point on record – from 12.5 million in 1990, according to data jointly released by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other organizations. The disruptions, these organizations said, “are putting millions of additional lives at stake.”
Over the past 30 years, health services to prevent or treat causes of child death such as preterm, pneumonia, malaria and complications during birth have helped save millions of lives, the U.N. said. But now, resource constraints and a general uneasiness about using health services due to the risk of contracting COVID-19 has led to disruptions in child and maternal health services, which includes health checkups, vaccinations and prenatal and postnatal care.
“The global community has come too far towards eliminating preventable child deaths to allow the COVID-19 pandemic to stop us in our tracks,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement. “Without urgent investments to re-start disrupted health systems and services, millions of children under five, especially newborns, could die.”
A survey conducted by UNICEF across 77 countries found that nearly 70% of nations reported “at least some disruption in health checks for children and immunization services.” Sixty-three percent of countries reported “disruptions in antenatal checkups and 59% in post-natal care.”
“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, another organization involved in collecting data for the report.
Meanwhile, a recent WHO survey of 105 countries revealed that 52% reported disruptions in health services for sick children and 51% in services for the management of malnutrition.
Based on the 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; and greater financial difficulties.
Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen are among the hardest-hit countries, according to the organizations.
“Now, we must not let the COVID-19 pandemic turn back remarkable progress for our children and future generations,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “Rather, it’s time to use what we know works to save lives, and keep investing in stronger, resilient health systems.”