COVID-19 could have disastrous implications for 12 million breastfeeding women and their babies in high risk countries, warns CARE

GENEVA, 28 MAY 2020 – According to recent data from the INFORM risk database, eight countries face the highest risk of the health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 community transmission. Within this population a CARE International analysis estimates that there are around 12 million breastfeeding mothers and more than 1.6 million pregnant women. In these countries alone, six of which are in Africa, there are almost 52 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

"One of the biggest worries with the spread of the coronavirus across the global south is that attendance of women to maternal health services is already dropping, and could continue to dramatically decrease as the pandemic continues," said Isadora Quay, CARE International’s Global Gender in Emergencies Coordinator. "For new and expecting mothers in developing countries, combining the secondary implications of this pandemic - severely disrupted lifesaving primary health services and a looming hunger crisis - the outcomes could be nothing short of heart breaking."

Across West Africa, for example, the use of health centres has considerably decreased since the outbreak of COVID-19, especially in urban centres. "People are either afraid of contracting diseases by going to the centres or they say that social distancing measures significantly increase waiting times, making it inconvenient to access service," said Quay. "One pregnant woman in Sierra Leone - which already has the third highest maternal mortality rate in the world - told us that because of false rumors about the coronavirus and health workers, her husband forbade her from going to antenatal consultations." During past epidemics, such as the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, disruption of health services - combined with fear of seeking treatment during the outbreak - contributed to an estimated 3,600 maternal deaths, neonatal deaths and stillbirths - almost as many deaths as those caused directly by the Ebola virus in the country.

According to data from the UN Population Fund, significant levels of lockdown related disruption over six months could leave 47 million women in low and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to a projected 7 million additional unintended pregnancies. "We know this will have devastating effects on the health and well-being of women and girls, including increasing their risk for maternal death. Modern contraception prevents up to 30 percent of maternal deaths every year because it allows women to delay their first pregnancies until they are psychically and emotionally ready and space later pregnancies to allow women’s bodies to recover," added Quay.

In Somalia and South Sudan, two of the countries at highest risk of health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19, maternal mortality rates were already among the highest in the world.

"In Koang, Pariang county, a pregnant woman recently told us that she felt sick. Without access to a nearby health facility she resorted to taking traditional medicine which resulted in the termination of the pregnancy at four months," explained Rosalind Crowther, CARE Country Director in South Sudan. "Proper postnatal care is critical for mothers and newborns. If they don’t have access they risk dying during delivery or in the first days following the childbirth."

In Somalia, where 1.3 million people are already suffering from acute food and nutrition insecurity the upcoming lean season will most likely severely worsen an already dire situation, especially for pregnant women and new mothers. "Pregnant women are bound to suffer the most not only from the lack of food, but also because they will have to travel greater distances for check-ups and treatments, as the drought will further hinder their access to health facilities, on top of the restrictive measures put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus," said Abdi Nur Elmi, CARE Somalia Emergency Director.

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Lama Alsafi
media@care.ca | 613-228-5641

Notes to editors:

  • The eight countries (Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Chad, Haiti, and Burundi) facing the highest risk of health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 (based on community transmission) was taken from the INFORM Humanitarian Risk Index and data on populations within those countries in need of humanitarian assistance from the OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Overview.
  • The breastfeeding women and pregnancy estimates in this press release were calculated using calculations from the Inter-agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings: 2010 and using World Bank data on the crude birth rate per 1,000 within the eight countries. While these are not precise figures, in the absence of updated data for the affected population, they are considered accurate indications of the number of pregnant and breastfeeding women prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on these calculations it is estimated that within these eight countries, there are: 12 million currently breastfeeding women; 1.6 pregnant women (per month); and 2 million births (per month).

About CARE Canada:

Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package®, CARE develops solutions alongside women and girls in developing countries to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty and out of crisis. CARE stands with women and girls around the world in economic empowerment. We bring women, girls, and their communities together to challenge inequality while facing issues like food insecurity, climate change, and emergency relief in times of crisis or disaster. CARE works in 100 countries around the world.

To learn more about CARE Canada, visit www.care.ca