Sep 5, 2020 - Health

Pandemic is threatening a decade of progress in child mortality rates

Data: PATH estimates from disrupted maternal, newborn and child health services, drawing on modeling from Lancet Global Health; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: PATH estimates from disrupted maternal, newborn and child health services, drawing on modeling from Lancet Global Health; Chart: Axios Visuals

Within a mere eight months, COVID-19 has damaged years of global progress in children's health and other areas by disrupting essential health services in many countries.

Why it matters: These disrupted services will result in a myriad of near- and long-term health problems. The global health organization PATH points to a projected increase in deaths in children under the age of 5 that could erase up to a decade of progress, according to preliminary findings shared first with Axios.

The big picture: Decades of global progress in education, electricity access, and gender equality have been lost due to the pandemic.

  • And, those most vulnerable — including children and people in low-income countries — will likely continue bearing the brunt of those costs.

What's happening: The interruption of antenatal care, facility births and immunizations caused by the pandemic now threatens recent advances made in child and maternal deaths, says Heather Ignatius, director of the U.S. and global advocacy team for the nonprofit PATH.

"The estimates we are looking at indicate that in the first year of the pandemic, we'll lose 2.3 million children just from the disruption to services due to COVID alone — the entire population of Houston. It's really significant. And, that's on top of the 5.3 million kids we're already losing every year from preventable causes."
— Heather Ignatius

Background: Before the coronavirus hit, the world was admittedly not on track to meet most of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but it had made progress in improving child and maternal heath.

  • In May, researchers published a study in The Lancet projecting best and worst scenarios from COVID-19, but warning that maternal and under-5 child deaths were likely to grow from the disease as well as from disruption of health systems and decreased access to food.
  • In July, the UN announced that COVID-19 had "reversed decades of progress."

The latest: 90% of the 105 responding nations in a recent WHO pulse survey said they experienced at least some disruption to their essential health services. The most frequently disrupted services were:

  • Routine immunization, via outreach services like mobile labs (70%) and through facility-based services (61%).
  • Noncommunicable disease diagnosis and treatment (69%).
  • Family planning and contraception (68%).
  • Treatment for mental health disorders (61%).
  • Antenatal care (56%).
  • Cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%).

What they're saying: When it comes to impact on vulnerable populations like children, Ignatius says WHO's results are "pretty devastating."

  • With the disruptions to vaccination programs, "we're very concerned that we'll see a surge in diseases like polio, measles [and] hepatitis B" over the years to come, Ignatius said.
  • Disruptions to malaria diagnosis and treatment and malnutrition programs for children are very worrisome, she adds.
  • WHO's findings echo PATH's research and data from ministries of health already reporting increases in maternal death rates and stillbirths in Uganda, Kenya and Nepal, she says.
  • "If these estimates are right, we're looking at 20,000 kids a day dying due to preventable causes — that's a humanitarian crisis that no one's hearing about."

Of note: Ignatius points out there are lags in reporting for actual child mortality figures, so it may be some time — possibly even years — before the actual impact is ascertained.

What to watch: Ignatius hopes U.S. policymakers pass key global health funding and adds that her biggest concern is that once the situation is controlled in the U.S., people will move on.

  • "[T]hey won't want to focus on health anymore. They will be sick of it. ... That's natural but there are people who can't forget it because they'll be living it for years to come," she says.
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