An additional 6,000 children could die worldwide every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weaken health systems and disrupt routine services, UNICEF said.
In Bangladesh too, uptake of critical health services for under-five children has decreased significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The service utilisation for children under 5 years of age in March 2020 was down 25 per cent compared to March 2019.
“A large number of children could die from preventable and treatable conditions if the pandemic leads to substantial reductions in health service coverage. UNICEF is working closely with the Government of Bangladesh to help ensure that lifesaving care for children and mothers is available, safe and accessible,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Country Representative in Bangladesh.
The uptake of maternal and newborn health services has also decreased, approximately by 19 per cent. In addition, key maternal health services such as antenatal care visits and postnatal checkups in health facilities have decreased substantially, and deliveries in facilities have decreased by 21 per cent for the period of January to March 2020 compared with October to December 2019.
Due to the pandemic, Bangladesh had to postpone a measles and rubella immunisation campaign targeting 34 million children aged 9 months to 9 years. Though routine immunisation sessions continue, many outreach sessions have been suspended and the transportation of vaccines remains challenging.
A new analysis projects that if there is further reduction in health services in Bangladesh, more than 28,000 children under the age of five could die in next six months as an indirect result of the pandemic in worst case scenario. Wasting, a severe form of malnutrition, would be a significant contributory factor to such under-five deaths.
While the health system has had to give much of its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic response, which is very important, UNICEF is also working with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to maintain routine essential maternal, newborn and child health services which have equally important consequences for children and women.
The ministry has recruited an additional 2,000 doctors and 5,000 nurses to help overcome the challenges. Additional investments in health are needed now more than ever to strengthen the health system in Bangladesh.
The above-mentioned mortality estimates are based on an analysis by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, newly published in The Lancet Global Health journal. Based on the worst of three scenarios in 118 low- and middle-income countries, the analysis estimates that an additional 1.2 million under-five deaths could occur in just six months, due to reductions in routine health service coverage levels and an increase in child wasting.
These potential child deaths will be in addition to the 2.5 million children who already die before their 5th birthday every six months in the 118 countries included in the study, threatening to reverse nearly a decade of progress on ending preventable under-five mortality.
Some 56,700 more maternal deaths could also occur in just six months, in addition to the 144,000 deaths that already take place in the same countries over a six-month period.
“Under a worst-case scenario, the global number of children dying before their fifth birthdays could increase for the first time in decades,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “We must not let mothers and children become collateral damage in the fight against the virus. And we must not let decades of progress on reducing preventable child and maternal deaths be lost.”
In countries with already weak health systems, COVID-19 is causing disruptions in medical supply chains and straining financial and human resources. Visits to health care centres are declining due to lockdowns, curfews and transport disruptions, and as communities remain fearful of infection. In a commentary to the Lancet report, UNICEF warns these disruptions could result in potentially devastating increases in maternal and child deaths.
An estimated 77 per cent of children under the age of 18 worldwide – 1.80 billion out of 2.35 billion – were living in one of the 132 countries with stay-at-home policies, as of early May.
Nearly 1.3 billion students – over 72 per cent – are out of school as a result of nationwide school closures in 177 countries.
Around 40 per cent of the world’s population are not able to wash their hands with soap and water at home.
Nearly 370 million children across 143 countries who normally rely on school meals for a reliable source of daily nutrition must now look to other sources as schools are shuttered.
As of 14 April, over 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on their measles vaccination as the pandemic causes immunization campaigns to stop to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
This week, UNICEF is launching #Reimagine, a global campaign to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children, especially the most vulnerable children – such as those affected by poverty, exclusion or family violence.
Through the campaign, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, the public, donors and the private sector to join UNICEF as it seeks to respond, recover and reimagine a world currently besieged by the coronavirus:
Respond: We must act now to stop the disease from spreading, help the sick, and protect first responders on the frontlines risking their own lives to save others.
Recover: Even when the pandemic slows, each country will have to continue to work to mitigate the knock-on effects on children and address the damage inflicted. Communities will also have to work together, and across borders to rebuild and prevent a return of the disease.
Reimagine: If we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is that our systems and policies must protect people, all the time, not just in the event of a crisis. As the world recovers from the pandemic, now is the time to lay the groundwork for building back better.
To kickstart the campaign, two of UNICEF’s valued partners - Pandora and ING - have both agreed to pledge a generous donation to show their part in answering the call to this appeal and to spur more donations from the public in the coming weeks.
“The COVID-19 crisis is a child rights crisis. We need an immediate-, medium- and long-term response that not only addresses the challenges created by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also outlines a clear version for building back a better world when the crisis finally recedes. For that, we need everyone’s ideas, resources, creativity and heart.” said Fore. “It is our shared responsibility today, to reimagine what the world will look like tomorrow.”
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