COVID-19 hits life-saving health services in Africa

Nov. 6, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to key health services in Africa, raising concerns that some of the continent’s major health challenges could worsen, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A preliminary analysis by the WHO of five essential health-service indicators finds a sharp decline in these services in 14 countries between January and September. The services include outpatient consultation, inpatient admission, skilled birth attendance, treatment of confirmed malaria cases and provision of the combination pentavalent vaccine.

The gaps were the widest in May, June, and July, corresponding to when many countries had put in place and enforced movement restrictions and other social and public health measures to check the spread of COVID-19. During these three months, services in the five monitored areas dropped on average by more than 50 percent in the 14 countries compared with the same period in 2019.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa was high, accounting for about two-thirds of global maternal deaths in 2017. Preliminary data indicates that COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate women’s health challenges and the new analysis found that skilled birth attendance in the 14 countries dropped. In Nigeria, 362 700 pregnant women missed pregnancy care between March and August 2020. Over 97,000 women gave birth away from healthcare facilities and over 193 000 missed postnatal care within two days of giving birth. There were 310 maternal deaths in Nigerian healthcare facilities in August 2020, nearly double the figure in August 2019.

An additional 1.37 million children across the African region missed the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, which protects against Tuberculosis (TB), and an extra 1.32 million children younger than one year of age missed their first dose of measles vaccine between January and August 2020, when compared with the same period in 2019.

Immunization campaigns covering measles, yellow fever, polio, and other diseases have been postponed in at least 15 African countries this year. The introduction of new vaccines has been halted and several countries have reported running out of vaccine stocks. 

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