By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
An additional 51,000 children under the age of five might die in North Africa and the Middle East by the end of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a study by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization.
This concerning projection was made in a joint statement on 14 June by Ted Chaiban, UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Dr. Ahmend Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is putting health systems under unprecedented stress in the region. Primary health care services have either decreased or been interrupted in several countries,” read the statement.
UNICEF and the WHO warn that if the current disruption to essential health and nutrition services is protracted and malnutrition among children increases, an estimated 51,000 children may die. If this happens, notes the statement, “it will be an increase of nearly 40 percent in comparison to pre-COVID figures.”
The baseline figure for under-five mortality in the region in six months is nearly 133,000 deaths. The projected additional 51,000 deaths would bring the total deaths of children under the age of five to almost 184,000.
The UNICEF/WHO study covers ten countries including Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. Altogether, the population of children under five in these countries is almost 41 million, accounting for almost 75% of the total number of children under the age of five in the Middle East and North Africa.
A combination of factors
The statement notes that while there are not many cases of Covid-19 among children in the region, a combination of factors will contribute to this concerning prediction.
It points out that many front-line health workers have diverted their efforts to fight against the Covid-19 virus amid a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies.
Besides, movement restrictions and economic barriers can prevent access to health care for many communities.
Also, many people are afraid of contracting Covid-19 while at health facilities. This may lead to many children and mothers missing out on care during pregnancy and childbirth, preventive interventions like immunization, and treatment of neonatal infections.
Call to health care systems
UNICEF/WHO urge health care systems in the region to adopt measures “to avoid this scenario, allowing tens of thousands of children to celebrate their fifth birthday surrounded by family and friends.”
The statement proposes the full and safe resumption of vaccination campaigns and nutritional services following prescribed precautionary measures. It also encourages prioritizing and facilitating access to primary health care services for every child.
In addition, the statement recommends equipping community outreach teams across the region with the minimum requirement for infection prevention and control. It also suggests investing in effective public communication and community engagement initiatives to increase trust in public health care systems.