Over a period of three months in lockdown due to COVID-19, 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls became pregnant — a 40% increase in the country's monthly average. These numbers, from early July, are some of the earliest pieces of evidence linking the COVID-19 pandemic to unintended pregnancies.
Public health officials and women’s rights advocates worry that the ongoing pandemic is delaying an adequate response to a growing sexual reproductive health crisis.
One survey conducted by the Kenya Health Information System found that 3,964 girls under the age of 19 were pregnant in Machakos County alone.
And new data from the International Rescue Committee found that girls living in refugee camps have been particularly affected.
While only eight cases of teenage pregnancy were reported in June 2019 at Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest of the country, 62 pregnancies were recorded in June 2020. At Dadaab refugee camp, there was a 28% increase in reported teenage pregnancies during the April-June period, compared to the same period last year.
When Kenya introduced strict preventive measures to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus in April — including restricting movement and closing schools — accessing sexual and reproductive health services became much harder.
Dr. Manisha Kumar, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) task force on safe abortion care, recently spoke about how the pandemic is affecting sexual reproductive health during an online press conference.
"During the pandemic, a lot of resources got pulled away from a lot of routine services and care, and those services were redirected to coronavirus response," Kumar said.
Because hospitals and health care facilities are focusing primarily on the threat posed by COVID-19, there are often not enough resources or personnel to continue to offer reproductive health care.
"The collateral damage of taking that kind of approach is when we shut down these routine services, we saw an increase in maternal and child death, from preventative causes," Kumar said.
In April, the United Nations Population Fund warned that lockdown-related disruptions could leave 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries without modern contraceptives, resulting in 7 million additional unintended pregnancies.
The World Health Organization reports that complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls and women globally — 99% of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. Further, teenagers who give birth often face higher rates of poverty and domestic violence later in life due to misogynistic cultural norms and threadbare social safety nets.
"It is alarming that so many teenage girls have fallen pregnant during lockdown, which can have lifelong consequences for them," Kate Maina-Vorley, Plan International Kenya’s country director, said in a statement.
Plan International is now calling on governments around the world to incorporate sexual health planning as a part of COVID-19 response plans.
The organization is also exploring new ways to distribute sexual and reproductive health education online through social media and via telehealth platforms amid the pandemic.