Children play amid disinfectant being sprayed against the coronavirus outbreak at a market in Sanaa, Yemen, on April 30. (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

UNICEF Says MENA Preschooler Deaths Could Rise by 40%

UN children’s organization says coronavirus-linked interruptions in health care could lead to as many as 184,000 young children dying in the region

UNICEF is warning that it expects 40% more children under the age of five to die this year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) because COVID-19 has prevented them from getting primary health care.

The 51,000 additional deaths would bring the total projected for this year to 184,000. The increase is attributable to avoiding medical attention for fear of contracting coronavirus, a decrease in vaccination rates and increased poverty. Conflict and poverty had already been expected to account for 133,000 deaths.

UNICEF’s estimates are based on 10 countries: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen, which account for three quarters of the region’s under-five population.

The organization says it is not too late to halt the increase in deaths of these children, but governments, the international community and the private sector must increase their efforts.

“We are concerned about some governments in the region not resuming vaccination campaigns against diseases like measles or polio, diphtheria or hepatitis, and that shouldn’t happen,” Juliette Touma, communications chief at UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa office, told The Media Line.

“This lack of vaccinations is one of the elements that is likely to contribute to more kids dying,” she said.

From the international community, she added, “we are asking for $40 million for the coming six months, specifically for the area of health and to improve the access to primary health care for children and families.”

Touma also called on the private sector to step up the provision of such supplies as personal protective equipment (PPE) and to create space for public engagement.

“Through the media, for example, we are able to encourage people to access primary health care, which has been a problem… as people, like in other places in the world, were concerned [about contracting] COVID,” she said.

“We [want people to not] be afraid to go to a health center when their child is sick or when they need to vaccinate their kid. Access to primary health care is possible and should in fact be encouraged if you follow the procedures [like] social spacing, [properly] disinfecting [areas] and wearing personal protective equipment,” she added.

In Yemen and Sudan, however, the situation is more dire.

“In Yemen, for example, half of the health facilities do not function as the direct result of armed conflict, lack of personnel [and] lack of equipment,” Touma said.

Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for Yemen at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), says coronavirus is merely adding to existing woes.

“Ten million people are one step away from famine and they lack access to water and sanitation, and [as a result] do not have immunity to a lot of diseases, with [many afflictions like] cholera already rampant,” she told The Media Line.

Ten million people are one step away from famine and they lack access to water and sanitation, and [as a result] do not have immunity to a lot of diseases, with [many afflictions like] cholera already rampant

“Yemen’s health system has been crippled by five years of war and, frankly speaking, the health system is on the verge of collapsing, if it hasn’t already,” she noted.

Touma says the region already has a high mortality rate for children under five because of other problems that hamper access to primary health care for young children.

“Conflict is the top factor and has contributed to making things much worse,” she said.

“The other factor that really plays a role in people accessing health care,” she continued, “is poverty, which is quite deep in the region in the sense that half of the kids live or have lived in some form of poverty. [This] obviously contributes to children not having access to not only health care, but education, nutritious food, information systems and technologies, decent housing, etc.”

UNICEF is releasing its updated child mortality estimates in a bid to prevent the increase in deaths.

“We are not sure that this is absolutely going to happen, and we do hope that we won’t reach the [projected] scenario,” Touma said. “The purpose of doing all this is to ring alarm bells so that we can all work together as entities to not get to this situation.”

Health-care consumers are not the only ones who fear getting COVID-19. Providers are also concerned, as they work in substandard conditions. This is particularly true in Yemen.

“Health-care workers are terrified. They lack protective equipment. There is a shortage of beds, ICU [intensive-care] units [and] medicine. People with symptoms or serious health conditions are also being turned away by hospitals,” the NRC’s Begum said.

“There is a lot of fear about COVID-19, and there is a lot of stigma attached to the virus,” she explained. “So people are not coming or they are turning up really late.”

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