Coronavirus could reverse decades of progress toward eliminating preventable child deaths, agencies warn

With the number of under-five deaths at an all-time recorded low of 5.2 million in 2019, disruptions in child and maternal health services due to the pandemic are putting millions of additional lives at stake

Home > Media Contacts and Press Releases > Coronavirus could reverse decades of progress toward eliminating preventable child deaths, agencies warn

NEW YORK/ GENEVA, 9 September 2020– The number of global under-five deaths dropped to its lowest point on record in 2019 – down to 5.2 million from 12.5 million in 1990, according to new mortality estimates released by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Bank Group.

Last year, a newborn baby died every 13 seconds, and 47 per cent of all under-five deaths occurred in the neonatal period, up from 40 per cent in 1990. As the world fights Coronavirus, the number of deaths of children under five could continue to rise due to alarming disruptions in child and maternal health services.

Liam Sollis, Head of Policy, Unicef UK says:

“Last year, 14,000 children died every day from preventable causes and as the pandemic reduces children’s access to health services, we could see many more robbed of their life before they have had a chance to start. These sobering figures are a wakeup call to act now and to ensure these preventable child deaths are avoided.”

Surveys by UNICEF and WHO reveal that the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in major disruptions to health services that threaten to undo decades of hard-won progress.

Over the past 30 years, health services to prevent or treat causes of child death such as preterm, low birthweight, complications during birth, neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, as well as vaccination, have played a large role in saving millions of lives.

Now countries worldwide are experiencing disruptions in child and maternal health services, such as health checkups, vaccinations and prenatal and post-natal care, due to resource constraints and a general uneasiness with using health services due to a fear of getting Coronavirus.

A UNICEF survey conducted over the summer across 77 countries found that almost 68 per cent of countries reported at least some disruption in health checks for children and immunization services. In addition, 63 per cent of countries reported disruptions in antenatal checkups and 59 per cent in post-natal care.

A recent WHO survey based on responses from 105 countries revealed that 52 per cent of countries reported disruptions in health services for sick children and 51 per cent in services for management of malnutrition.

Health interventions such as these are critical for stopping preventable newborn and child deaths. For example, women who receive care by professional midwives trained according  to internationals standards are 16 per cent less likely to lose their baby and 24 per cent less likely to experience pre-term birth, according to WHO

“The fact that today more children live to see their first birthday than any time in history is a true mark of what can be achieved when the world puts health and well-being at the centre of our response,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Now, we must not let the COVID-19 pandemic turn back remarkable progress for our children and future generations. Rather, it’s time to use what we know works to save lives, and keep investing in stronger, resilient health systems.”

Based on the responses from countries that participated in the UNICEF and WHO surveys, the most commonly cited reasons for health service disruptions included parents avoiding health centers for fear of infection; transport restrictions; suspension or closure of services and facilities; fewer healthcare workers due to diversions or fear of infection due to shortages in personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves; and greater financial difficulties. Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen are among the hardest hit countries.

Seven of the nine countries had high child mortality rates of more than 50 deaths per 1000 live births among children under five in 2019. In Afghanistan, where 1 in 17 children died before reaching age 5 in 2019, the Ministry of Health reported a significant reduction in visits to health facilities. Out of fear of contracting the Coronavirus, families are de-prioritizing pre- and post-natal care, adding to the risk faced by pregnant women and newborn babies.

In May, initial modelling by Johns Hopkins University showed that almost 6,000 additional children could die per day due to disruptions due to the pandemic.

“Coronavirus is a major threat that could put us back years in the fight against child mortality, claiming up to 6,000 additional child deaths a day. The new FCDO should be at the forefront of stopping this, delivering an ambitious global plan to strengthen health systems and improve access to the basic health care services for the world’s most vulnerable children,” Sollis added.

These reports and surveys highlight the need for urgent action to restore and improve childbirth services and antenatal and postnatal care for mothers and babies, including having skilled health workers to care for them at birth. Working with parents to assuage their fears and reassure them is also important.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put years of global progress to end preventable child deaths in serious jeopardy,” said Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank.

“It is essential to protect life-saving services which have been key to reducing child mortality. We will continue to work with governments and partners to reinforce healthcare systems to ensure mothers and children get the services they need.”

“The new report demonstrates the ongoing progress worldwide in reducing child mortality,” said John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

“While the report highlights the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on interventions that are critical for children’s health, it also draws attention to the need to redress the vast inequities in a child’s prospects for survival and good health.”

Unicef UK’s  Save Generation Covid  appeal is supporting children and families impacted by Coronavirus across the world. Visit unicef.uk/donate-generationcovid to donate and help #GenerationCovid

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Note to editors

Download photos, b-roll, the full child mortality estimates report and data files here.  For the UNICEF survey on disruptions due to COVID-19, click here.

These links will go live after 00.01 GMT 9 September.

Main report landing page: https://data.unicef.org/resources/levels-and-trends-in-child-mortality/

Datasets: https://data.unicef.org/resources/dataset/child-mortality/

Narrative page https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/

About UN IGME
The United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation or UN IGME was formed in 2004 to share data on child mortality, improve methods for child mortality estimation, report on progress towards child survival goals and enhance country capacity to produce timely and properly assessed estimates of child mortality. UN IGME is led by UNICEF and includes the World Health Organization, the World Bank Group and the United Nations Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. For more information visit: http://www.childmortality.org/

  • The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest and most urgent global crisis children have faced since World War Two.
  • Children’s lives are being upended. Their support systems ripped away, their borders closed, their educations lost, their food supply cut off.
  • An additional 6,000 children around the world could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the coronavirus pandemic weakens health systems and disrupts routine services like vaccinations. That’s one every 15 seconds.
  • UNICEF’s “Save Generation Covid” appeal is the largest ever for children in our 73-year history, and we urgently need funds for lifesaving support and services to ensure that children survive this crisis – and thrive beyond it.
  • Together we can Save Generation Covid. Visit unicef.uk/donate-generationcovid to donate and help save #generationcovid.

About UN IGME 
The United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation or UN IGME was formed in 2004 to share data on child mortality, improve methods for child mortality estimation, report on progress towards child survival goals and enhance country capacity to produce timely and properly assessed estimates of child mortality. UN IGME is led by UNICEF and includes the World Health Organization, the World Bank Group and the United Nations Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. For more information visit: http://www.childmortality.org/

About UNICEF 

UNICEF is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK.

Follow UNICEF UK on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.

For more information, please contact:

Yemi Lufadeju, +44 20 7375 6199, YemiL@unicef.org.uk

Unicef UK Media Team, 0207 375 6030, media@unicef.org.uk