Covid-19 could reverse decades of progress eliminating preventable child diseases, agencies warn

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FEARS: Covid-19 has stopped vaccines in at least 68 countries, putting an estimated 80 million children at risk for preventable diseases, according to UNICEF. CREDIT: UNICEF

Child and health agencies have warned the Covid-19 pandemic could reverse decades of progress eliminating preventable child diseases.

THE number of worldwide under-five deaths dropped to an all-time recorded low of 5.2 million in 2019, significantly lower than the 12.5 million recorded in 1990.

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But studies carried out by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveal that the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in major disruptions to health services that threaten to undo decades of hard-won progress.

It is feared millions of additional lives are at stake.

“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 Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.


“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.”


Over the last three decades, health services to prevent or treat causes of child death such as preterm, low birth weight, complications during birth, neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, as well as vaccination, have played a large role in saving millions of lives.

Now countries globally are experiencing disruptions in child and maternal health services, 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, states WHO.

A UNICEF survey, conducted over the summer across 77 countries, found that almost 68 per cent of countries reported at least some disruption in health checks for children and immunisation services.

In addition, 63 per cent of countries reported disruptions in antenatal check-ups and 59 per cent in post-natal care.

Based on responses from 105 countries, a WHO study revealed that just over half of them reported disruptions in health services for sick children and 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 Dr. 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. Rather, it’s time to use what we know works to save lives, and keep investing in stronger, resilient health systems.”

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

The agencies stress that “these reports and surveys highlight the need for urgent action to restore and improve childbirth services and antenatal and postnatal care for mothers and babies, including having skilled health workers to care for them at birth”.

Working with parents to assuage their fears and reassure them is also important.

“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.”

John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, added: “While the report highlights the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on interventions that are critical for children’s health, it also draws attention to the need to redress the vast inequities in a child’s prospects for survival and good health.”

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