New Delhi (NVI): The disruptions in public health services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to around 239,000 child and maternal deaths in South Asia including India in 2020, according a UN report.
The report, commissioned by UNICEF and supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), stressed that public health services must urgently be restored and strengthened to contain the pandemic’s impact on the vulnerable families.
It cited examples of the more severe service disruptions, including an 80 per cent drop in the number of young children treated for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in Nepal and Bangladesh, while a sharp drop in childhood immunizations in Pakistan and India.
“Drastic cuts in the availability and use of essential public health services across South Asia due to COVID-19 may have contributed to an estimated 228,000 additional child deaths in 2020,” UN Children’s Fund said in a statement.
Around 11,000 additional maternal deaths are also expected, it added.
The clinics and other health facilities have been closed and many vital health and nutrition programmes halted as the region battles to contain COVID-19 cases, which numbered 11 million by the end of 2020, as per the report.
“The fall-off of these critical services has had a devastating impact on the health and nutrition of the poorest families,” UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia George Laryea-Adjei said.
“It is absolutely vital that these services are fully restored for children and mothers who are in desperate need of them, and that everything possible is done to ensure that people feel safe to use them,” George stressed.
The report noted that the South Asia region also suffered increased levels of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity caused by the pandemic have further undermined public health.
“Maintaining essential health services is an important pillar of WHO’s COVID-19 response strategy,” Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO South-East Asia Region stated.
The UN report focusing on South Asia’s six most populous countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also found that some 420 million children were out of school due to pandemic control measures.
It warned that 4.5 million girls are likely to never return to school, and are at particular risk due to deteriorating access to sexual and reproductive health and information services.
“Given the cultural and social context of South Asia, the suspension of these services is deepening inequalities and is likely to lead to an increase in the number of maternal and neonatal deaths,” Bjorn Andersson, Asia-Pacific Regional Director of UNFPA said.
There are also likely to be an additional 3.5 million unintended pregnancies in this region, Andersson added.
The report further called for making essential health services for pregnant women, adolescents and young infants a topmost priority as well as strengthening supply chains for the delivery of vaccines and other essential childhood medicines is also vital, it added
It has also called for cash transfer programmes for the poorest families and welcomes the various national social safety net programmes put in place since the start of the pandemic.