U.N. body issues guidelines for governments to follow to ensure health of pregnant women and infants
An estimated 5 million babies will be born in Pakistan in the nine months since the World Health Organization classified the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said in a report warning of greater risks during strained health systems and disruptions in healthcare services.
The report, which was published on Wednesday, predicted that 116 million babies would be born across the world between March 11 and Dec. 16, with 29 million of those in South Asia alone.
The countries with the highest predicted birthrates are India (20 million), Pakistan, Bangladesh (2.4 million), and Afghanistan (1 million).
“The continuing rapid spread of COVID-19 across South Asia means new mothers and newborns will be greeted by harsh realities, including global containment measures such as lockdowns and curfews; health centers overwhelmed with response efforts; supply and equipment shortages; and a lack of sufficient skilled birth attendants as health workers, including midwives, are redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients,” warned the report.
It noted that containment measures for COVID-19 were essential, but warned that they could disrupt life-saving health services such as childbirth care, putting millions of pregnant mothers and their babies at great risk. “Countries need to ensure they [pregnant mothers] still have access to antenatal, delivery and postnatal services,” it said.
“Likewise, sick newborns need emergency services as they are at high risk of death. New families require care to ensure the health and well-being of mothers, support to start breastfeeding, and to get medicines, vaccines and nutrition to keep their babies healthy,” it added.
The U.N. fund issued an “urgent appeal” to governments and healthcare providers to save lives in the coming months by:
- Helping pregnant women to receive antenatal checkups, skilled delivery care, postnatal care services, and care related to COVID-19 as needed;
- Ensuring health workers are provided with the necessary personal protective equipment and get priority testing and vaccination once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available so that can deliver high quality care to all pregnant women and newborn babies during the pandemic;
- Guaranteeing that all infection prevention and control measures are in place in health facilities during childbirth and immediately after;
- Allowing health care workers to reach pregnant women and new mothers through home visits, encouraging women living in remote areas to use maternal waiting homes, and by using mobile health strategies for tele-consultations;
- Training, protecting and equipping health workers with clean birth kits to attend home births where health facilities are closed;
- Allocating resources to lifesaving services and supplies for maternal and child health.
The report noted that it was not yet known whether the virus is transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy and delivery, and cautioned expecting mothers to take precautionary measures to avoid infection. It advised them to seek medical care early if they have any symptoms of the novel coronavirus. It also said they should continue breastfeeding their baby even if they are infected or suspect being infected as the virus has not been found in samples of breast milk. “Mothers with COVID-19 should wear a mask when feeding their baby; wash hands before and after touching the baby; and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces,” it added.
“The life threatening situation of millions of women and adolescent girls, as well as newborns, in South Asia cannot be ignored. The COVID-19 outbreak has instilled fear among mothers to seek health services due to the fear of getting infected,” noted Jean Gough, director of the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia.