The novel coronavirus may reverse decades of progress on preventable child deaths due to disruptions in health services in child and maternal care, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said Wednesday.
The agency said the global number of child deaths under the age of 5 dropped to 5.2 million in 2019, its lowest point on record. That is down from 12.5 million in 1990, however, major disruptions to health services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress.
“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,” 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.”
Health issues in the past three decades included preterm, low birthweight, complications during birth, neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, but today there are new concerns such as health checkups, vaccinations and prenatal and post-natal care due to “resource constraints and a general uneasiness with using health services due to a fear of getting COVID-19,” according to UNICEF.
A survey by the agency in 77 countries found almost 68% reported at least some disruption in health checks for children and immunization services, while 63% reported disruptions in antenatal checkups and 59% in post-natal care.
A World Health Organization (WHO) survey across 105 countries also found 52% reported disruptions in health services for sick children and 51% in services for management of malnutrition.
“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,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement.
“Now, we must not let the COVID-19 pandemic turn back remarkable progress for our children and future generations,” he added.
UNICEF stressed that newborn babies were at the highest risk of death even before COVID-19, as a newborn died every 13 seconds. Yet, an estimate by Johns Hopkins University in May showed almost 6,000 additional children could die every day due to disruptions in health services because of the coronavirus.
The number of global deaths from COVID-19 stood at almost 900,000 as of Wednesday with more than 27.6 million cases worldwide, according to latest data from the university.