Progress in reducing child mortality, which fell to an all-time low in 2019, is at risk as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts health services and deprives mothers and young children of access to care, particularly in poor countries, the United Nations has warned.
The joint report by UN agencies, including the UN children’s fund UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), said preventable deaths among children under five dropped to 5.2 million in 2019 compared with 12.5 million in 1990, but the pandemic was “putting millions of additional lives 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 chief.
“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.”
Fore called for “urgent investments” to resume disrupted health services, warning that millions of children were at risk without routine care.
According to a study carried out by UNICEF in 77 countries, 68 percent faced interruption to health systems as a result of the pandemic, from vaccination programmes to medical visits for children, while 63 and 59 percent reported disruptions to ante-natal care and neo-natal care respectively.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the progress in reducing child mortality “is proof of what is possible” when countries make health a priority.
“We must not let the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardise this remarkable progress for our children and future generations”, he stressed.
Ante- and neo-natal care in developing nations is relatively inexpensive and can profoundly affect child survival rates.
For example, women who receive care from professional midwives are 16 percent less likely to lose their baby and 24 percent less likely to experience pre-term birth, according to the WHO.
The survey found that seven countries had child mortality rates of more than 50 deaths in 1,000 live births last year.
In Afghanistan, where 1 in 17 children die before their fifth birthday, the health ministry reported a “significant reduction” in visits to health facilities, UNICEF said.
While that might be a result of fear of contracting COVID-19, avoiding healthcare facilities that have nothing to do with the coronavirus is a risk, experts say.
Muhammad Ali Pate, global director for health, nutrition and population at the World Bank, says the pandemic is putting efforts to end preventable child deaths in “serious jeopardy”.
“It is essential to protect life-saving services which have been key to reducing child mortality,” he said.
Modelling conducted earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University found that almost 6,000 additional children could die every day if COVID-19 healthcare disruptions continued in the medium term.