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WHO says COVID-19 has disrupted provision of essential healthcare services in Africa

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Photo taken on Jan. 22, 2020 shows an exterior view of the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The WHO on Wednesday night extended to Thursday its emergency talks on whether the novel coronavirus outbreak in China constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). (Xinhua/Liu Qu)

Provision of critical healthcare services in Africa including child immunization and hospital deliveries has experienced significant disruptions linked to COVID-19 pandemic, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.

Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said the continent’s vulnerable population has grappled with new health challenges as governments redirect financial resources and manpower towards combating the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hidden, dangerous knock-on effects for health in Africa,” Moeti said in a statement issued in Nairobi.

With health resources focused heavily on COVID-19, as well as fear and restrictions on people’s daily lives, vulnerable populations face a risk of falling through the cracks,” she added.

A survey by WHO of five critical health indicators like outpatient consultation, inpatient admission, skilled birth attendance, treatment of malaria and provision of the combination pentavalent vaccine in 14 African countries found a sharp decline from January to September compared to previous years.

The analysis by WHO revealed that hurdles in accessing these services were more pronounced from May to July when countries enforced stringent public health measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

According to WHO, access to the five critical health services in Africa dropped by more than 50 percent in the 14 countries surveyed compared with the same period in 2019.

“A new wave of COVID-19 infections could further disrupt life-saving health services, which are only now recovering from the initial impact,” said Moeti, adding that African countries should invest in resilient health systems amid risk of future pandemics.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for two thirds of global maternal deaths in 2017 as preliminary data from WHO indicate that COVID-19 is likely to worsen the health challenges for women and girls amid a drop in skilled birth attendance.

The analysis by WHO indicated that in Nigeria, 362,700 pregnant women missed ante-natal care between March and August amid disruptions linked to the pandemic.

The pandemic took a heavy toll on childhood immunization in Africa as an additional 1.37 toddlers missed on tuberculosis vaccine while an extra 1.32 children below one year missed their first dose of measles vaccine between January to August when compared to the same period in 2019.

“Now that countries are easing their restrictions, it is critical that they implement catch-up vaccination campaigns quickly,” said Moeti.

She said that capacity building for health workers combined with robust disease surveillance and data collection, is key to ensure that provision of critical healthcare services is not interrupted by the pandemic.

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