A brief by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that disruptions to women’s health services due to the COVID-19 pandemic may stall progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of equal health in Africa.
The WHO Global Pulse Survey on Continuity of Essential Health Services during the COVID-19 pandemic carried out between Nov. and Dec. 2021 shows 40 per cent of women in African countries were affected by disruptions to sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services.
According to the survey, the majority of the 36 African countries that provided full data reported up to 25 per cent disruption of services, the extent of which remained largely unchanged from the first quarter of 2021.
The survey spotlights how African mothers and daughters are still struggling to access the health care they need, two years into the pandemic.
One of the earliest surveys by WHO since the pandemic found that maternal deaths in health facilities in six of 11 African countries rose by 16 per cent on average between Feb. and May 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.
The figure dropped slightly in 2021 to 11 per cent. But scientists said the estimate is likely to be far higher as maternal deaths tend to occur mostly at home rather than in health facilities.
According to the data, facility-based births were reduced in 45 per cent of countries between Nov. and Dec. 2021 compared with the pre-pandemic period.
The authors of the survey say the pandemic exacts a heavy toll on women and girls who are facing a rising risk of sexual violence due to lockdowns, economic uncertainties, decrease in access to key support and health services, and an increase in stress in households.
According to WHO estimates in 2021, globally, 245 million women and girls aged 15 years and above were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner, with a small figure accessing essential health services.
In Africa, the pandemic made access to services for women who have experienced sexual violence difficult. Between Nov. and Dec 2021, 56 per cent of countries reported women’s health service disruptions as compared with the period before the pandemic.
Sexual and reproductive health
The Covid-19-induced disruptions also affected the uptake of essential reproductive health supplies, according to a rapid WHO survey in 21 African countries.
Between June and Sept. 2021, the survey said contraceptive use fell in 48 per cent of countries, which contributed to the rise of teenage pregnancies in some countries.
A 2021 report by the British Medical Journal found that adolescent secondary school girls who were out of school for six months due to the COVID-19 lockdown in Kenya were twice as likely to become pregnant and three times as likely to drop out of school compared with those graduating just prior to the pandemic.
Another study by the Medical Research Council showed that in five provinces of South Africa, teenage pregnancies have increased by 60 per cent since the start of the pandemic.
Call for action
Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said countries must look beyond short-term measures to restore services to pre-pandemic levels and make major investments for stronger systems capable of withstanding health emergencies while ensuring continuity of key services.
“The pandemic’s disruptive force will be felt by women for many years to come,” Moeti said in a statement.
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