The Covid-19 pandemic may have fueled higher levels of maternal and child mortality in more than a dozen of the world’s poorest countries by causing women and children to skip health care visits, according to a new study.
Researchers found the use of maternal and child outpatient health care services declined by 2.6% and 4.6% respectively on average across 18 low- and middle-income countries primarily in the Middle East and Africa from March 2020 to June 2021, according to the study, published in PLOS Medicine.
These declines in essential health care visits may have caused an estimated 113,962 avoidable deaths—including of 110,686 children under the age of 5, and 3,276 mothers—representing a 3.6% increase in child mortality and a 1.5% rise in maternal mortality, with the biggest increases in Bangladesh, Haiti, Kenya and Nigeria.
The biggest declines in outpatient health care visits occurred at the beginning of the pandemic when many countries imposed restrictions such as lockdowns, resulting in possibly 27.5% of the estimated deaths, researchers found.
The study shows how Covid has “reversed years of progress” in women and children’s health, “especially those in the most vulnerable communities,” Tashrik Ahmed, a study author and researcher at the World Bank, said in a statement.
Though not included in the PLOS Medicine study, the U.S. has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries. The U.S. maternal death rate spiked during the Covid pandemic in the U.S. as well, where it rose from 20.1 deaths to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2020, an 18% increase, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused significant disruptions in access to health care, with many delaying elective and preventive procedures due to safety concerns, lockdowns and overburdened health-care systems. While the coronavirus pandemic caused more than 6 million reported deaths, the outbreak has also likely led to indirect deaths from a lack of access to routine health services. These consequences could be exacerbated in lower and middle-income countries, which already have higher mortality rates and more precarious health systems, researchers noted. Scientists at the beginning of the pandemic predicted disruptions in key health care services may cause a rise in maternal and child mortality. Countries must prioritize both a response to the Covid pandemic as well as the strengthening of essential health services, particularly in more vulnerable communities, to avoid indirect health effects and deaths, researchers concluded.
The U.S. Maternal Mortality Rate Surged by Nearly 20% in 2020 (US News & World Report)
By Madeline Halpert, Forbes Staff