But the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to undermine the gains in reducing deaths among children and young adolescents, putting millions of lives at risk, according to the Levels and Trends in Child Mortality: Report 2019 released by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Bank Group.
“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 in a statement.
Recent surveys by UNICEF and WHO have found the pandemic is disrupting child and maternal healthcare services worldwide, including prenatal and post-natal care, vaccinations and check-ups due to fewer resources and a fear of contracting Covid-19.
“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 news release.
“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 said.
“Without urgent investments to re-start disrupted health systems and services, millions of children under five, especially newborns, could die,” she added.
Out of 77 countries surveyed by UNICEF over the summer, 68% reported disruptions in childhood checkups and vaccinations. A WHO survey of 105 countries also found 52% reported interruptions in medical services for sick kids and 51% reported disruptions in malnutrition programs.
These kinds of services are critical for preventing newborn and child deaths, WHO said, citing a statistic that pregnant women who see midwives are 16% less likely to lose their babies and 24% less likely to experience pre-term birth.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has put years of global progress to end preventable child deaths in serious jeopardy,” Muhammad Ali Pate, the Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank, said in a statement. “It is essential to protect life-saving services which have been key to reducing child mortality.
Newborns were at the highest risk of death, even before the coronavirus pandemic, with a baby dying every 13 seconds in 2019, the UNICEF mortality report said. They could be at a much higher risk of death with coronavirus-related disruptions in essential health services, according to WHO.
Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the pandemic from the start, said modeling showed that disruptions in healthcare due to Covid-19 could cause the deaths of almost 6,000 additional children every day.
Even though progress in childhood deaths is being made, the UNICEF mortality report also predicts that if current trends continue, 10 million 5-to-14-year-olds and 52 million children under 5 will still die between 2019 and 2030.
“Almost half of these under-five deaths will be newborns whose deaths could be prevented by providing high quality antenatal (prenatal) care, skilled care at birth, postnatal care for mothers and their babies, and care of small and sick newborns,” the report said.
“Reducing inequalities is essential for ending these preventable childhood deaths and for ensuring that no child is left behind,” the UNICEF report concluded.