While almost every country has experienced disruption to its health services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries in Africa have been severely affected, leading to the suspension of maternal, neonatal and child health care.
Project HOPE, the nonprofit that has worked to save women and babies’ lives worldwide since 1985, issued a news release warning that decades of progress made to prevent maternal complications and deaths across the continent could be reversed.
The organization calls on countries to develop public health responses that ensure women’s health services during times of emergency.
“Globally, and in many African countries, women have borne the brunt of the harmful effects of the pandemic. They have had limited to no access to essential maternal and child health services for a significant time period as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and scarce resources in already overstretched hospitals and health centers,” Eden Ahmed Mdluli, senior technical officer for maternal, neonatal and child health at Project HOPE, said in the release.
In 2020, the United Nations announced that about 10,000 health workers would receive training to support mothers and newborns in Africa.
The training would occur through a partnership between the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF and Laerdal Global Health, the nonprofit arm of a Norwegian company that provides innovative training, educational and therapy solutions for emergency medical care and patient safety.
The five-year program aims to improve maternal and newborn health in some communities with the highest mortality rates in Eastern and Southern Africa.
U.N. officials said it would start the program in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya and later expand to other countries in the region.
According to UNICEF, despite recent and promising progress in maternal and neonatal health over the past decades, maternal and newborn mortality rates in the Eastern and Southern Africa region remain alarming.
In 2017, roughly 70,000 women in those regions died due to complications during pregnancy and birth, while in 2019, more than 440,000 newborns died in the first 28 days after delivery, UNICEF officials noted.
Project HOPE officials noted that while more data is needed to fully document the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on women and children across Africa, some preliminary numbers have shown a drop in utilization of essential reproductive, maternal, and neonatal health services.
According to findings by the Global Financing Facility, the number of women who attended the recommended medical visits during pregnancy dropped by 18 percent in Liberia, and the initiation of women seeking medical care during pregnancy fell by 16 percent in Nigeria.
Additionally, a recent modeling study across 118 of the world’s countries estimated that between 8.3 percent and 38.6 percent more pregnant women could die each month.
In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, this would add 1,280 and 6,700 maternal deaths to the already staggering 16,000 and 67,000 respective maternal deaths each year, Project HOPE officials noted.
“These numbers echo a recent warning from the World Health Organization in Africa, which reported a rise in maternal deaths in 10 countries with the highest increases recorded in Comoros, Mali, Senegal, and South Africa,” the officials wrote in the release.
They reported that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, curfews imposed in certain African countries made it difficult for pregnant women to reach clinics and/or hospitals after curfew time.
Many health centers, which offer free or low-cost services, also closed during the pandemic, especially if the virus had infected one staff or more.
Many hospitals also had to rearrange their units to accommodate COVID-19 patients. In many cases, it meant diverting resources for existing medical needs to COVID-19 needs, leaving pregnant women and new mothers without access to adequate care.
“People are extremely vulnerable during a pandemic,” Ahmed Mdluli said. “That’s why it is even more critical to ensure the continuation of quality and safe women’s health services during times of emergency. Countries must develop a public health response that ensures maternal and child health services in such critical times. Pandemics should not present either-or propositions.”
Project HOPE also calls on countries to strengthen qualitative data collection to identify the exact cause(s) of death during pregnancy and childbirth recorded during the pandemic.
The organization noted that such action would help ensure the proper steps are taken to prevent similar deaths in the future.
“Before the pandemic, significant strides were made in ensuring healthy lives and reducing some of the common killers associated with maternal and child mortality,” Ahmed Mdluli said. “Today, the world’s ability to meet the important Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 requires taking stock of the challenges faced during the pandemic and ensuring equitable health care access for the most vulnerable populations.”