The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to key health services in Africa, raising worries that some of the continent’s major health challenges could worsen.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa located in Brazzaville, Congo, stated this in a statement posted on its website.
According to the UN health agency, the preliminary analysis by the WHO of five key essential health service indicators include outpatient consultation, inpatient admission and skilled birth attendance.
Other indicators are the treatment of confirmed malaria cases and provision of the combination pentavalent vaccine in 14 countries which records a sharp decline.
The world body noted that “there is a sharp decline in these services between January and September 2020 compared with the two previous years.
“The gaps were the widest in May, June and July, corresponding to when many countries put in place and enforced movement restrictions and other social and public health measures to check the spread of COVID-19.
“During these three months, services in the five monitored areas dropped on average by more than 50 per cent in the 14 countries compared with the same period in 2019.’’
The WHO statement quoted Dr Matshidiso Moeti, its Regional Director for Africa, as saying “the COVID-19 pandemic brought hidden, dangerous knock-on effects for health in Africa.
“Health resources focused heavily on COVID-19, while fear and restrictions on people’s daily lives, vulnerable populations face rising risk of falling through the cracks.
“We must reinforce our health systems to better withstand future shocks. A strong health system is the bedrock for emergency preparedness and response. As countries ease COVID-19 restrictions, we must not leave the door open for the pandemic to resurge.
“A new wave of COVID-19 infections could further disrupt life-saving health services, which are only now recovering from the initial impact.”
The statement noted that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa was unacceptably high, accounting for about two-thirds of global maternal deaths in 2017.
It indicated that “preliminary data indicates that COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate women’s health challenges and the new analysis finds that skilled birth attendance in the 14 countries has dropped.
“In Nigeria, 362,700 pregnant women missed ante-natal care between March and August 2020. Over 97, 000 women gave birth away from health facilities and over 193,000 missed postnatal care within two days of giving birth.
“There were 310 maternal deaths in Nigerian health facilities in August 2020, nearly double the figure in August 2019.’’
The statement indicated that an additional 1.37 million children across the African region missed the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine which protects against Tuberculosis (TB).
It stated that an extra 1.32 million children aged under one year missed their first dose of measles vaccine between January and August 2020, when compared with the same period in 2019.
It added that “immunisation campaigns covering measles, yellow fever, polio and other diseases have been postponed in at least 15 African countries this year.
“The introduction of new vaccines has been halted and several countries have reported running out of vaccine stocks.’’
It, however, quoted Moeti as saying “now that countries are easing restrictions, it is critical that they implement catch-up vaccination campaigns quickly.
“The longer, large numbers of children remain unprotected against measles and other childhood diseases, the more likely we see deadly outbreaks flaring up and claiming more lives than COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, WHO has issued guide lines on how to provide safe immunisation services, including how to conduct careful risk assessment before implementing preventive mass vaccination, with attention to appropriate protective measures to avoid transmission of COVID-19.