The disruptions caused by COVID-19 to routine medical services around the world could potentially cause more than 1.2 million child deaths in the next six months, according to a study published in the Lancet Global Health journal.
The number reportedly equates to 6,000 children dying every day around the world.
As well as the devastating impact on children and families, the estimated figure would be a significant setback to a decade of progress on ending prevetable child deaths globally, according to the UN's children's agency, UNICEF.
“[This pandemic] is undoubtedly the biggest and most urgent global crisis children have faced since the Second World War,” Sacha Deshmukh, UNICEF UK’s executive director, told the Guardian.
“Children’s lives are being upended across the globe — their support systems ripped away, their borders closed, their educations lost, their food supply cut off,” he added.
The study, by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, modeled a few different scenarios in low- and middle-income countries and estimated that in the worst case — in which coverage of essential services drops by 40-50% — there would be an additional 1.16 million child deaths and 56,700 maternal deaths.
These would be additional preventable child deaths that wouldn’t happen if not for COVID-19. Prior to COVID-19, in the countries studied, some 2.5 million children die before their fifth birthdays in an average 6-month period.
“Under a worst-case scenario, the global number of children dying before their fifth birthdays could increase for the first time in decades,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF's executive director, in a statement.
The least severe scenario modeled by the study — in which coverage of essential services drops by 10-19% — still projects an additional 253,500 child deaths (an increase of 9.8%) and 12,200 additional maternal deaths (an increase of 8.3%) over the next six months.
As well as the direct impact of the virus on people's health, COVID-19 has also disrupted medical supply chains, and strained financial and human resources, according to UNICEF. Additionally, the pandemic has also caused a decline in visits to health care centers due to lockdowns and concern over safety, including for vital infant and maternal health interventions like birth and postnatal care, and vaccinations.
In a commentary published in The Lancet Global Health, Fore referred to this study as a “wake-up call,” and listed a number of actions the global community can take to avoid the worst impacts of the virus.
First and foremost, she said supplies and protective equipment must reach health workers and affected communities. In addition, life-saving maternal, newborn, and child health services, routine vaccinations, and HIV treatment must be continued.
“We need an immediate-, medium-, and long-term response that not only addresses the challenges created by the pandemic and its secondary impacts on children, but also outlines a clear version for building back a better world when the crisis finally recedes,” Fore said.