Child deaths in poor countries surged as Covid-19 strained health care

Patients may not be getting required services because of increased barriers during the pandemic, report by Scottish charity KidsOR says

A woman carrying a child begs for alms on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan. In low and middle-income countries, surging Covid cases strained healthcare systems during the pandemic. AFP
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Thousands of children are estimated to have died every month because of the impact of coronavirus on health systems in poorer countries, a Scottish charity has said.

In low and middle-income countries, surging Covid cases strained healthcare systems, a report by Edinburgh-based charity KidsOR showed, with researchers estimating that the collateral effects resulted in at least 6,000 children dying each month during the pandemic.

There were significant changes in the ages and characteristics of patients operated on, before and during the Covid pandemic, with more healthier and wealthier patients treated.

The charity said the findings raise concerns about unreported deaths among poorer people.

Because healthier people were more likely to get treatment, they experienced better results, with a 50 per cent drop in the number of people getting sepsis, infection or dying after surgery.

David Cunningham, the charity’s chief executive, said: “The study suggests the improvements likely reflect a change in the patient population, where sicker patients may not be getting the required care due to increased barriers to access healthcare during the pandemic.

“Our findings add to the growing evidence of hidden morbidity and excess mortality during the pandemic from patients delaying care and potentially dying at home, especially in rural and underserved areas.”

Researchers from the charity and the University of California found there was a sharp drop in the number of operations following the initial outbreak, in March to April 2020, which was in contrast to the trend set before.

Overall, the figure has been slow to recover, KidsOR said, with the total number of operations still not back to pre-Covid levels.

Researchers said that in richer parts of the world there were more resources to help manage Covid surges, but in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) their healthcare systems have been overwhelmed and worsened by harder-to-access protective equipment and vaccines.

Mr Cunningham said: “The findings of our study are particularly concerning as many LMICs have reported surges of Covid cases in recent months.

“The lack of easily accessible data in LMICs has made it difficult to assess the true impact of Covid-19 and track trends.

“These factors all combine to not only prolong the reduction in surgical capacity in LMICs, but also make it difficult to co-ordinate and plan recovery strategies.”

KidsOR, launched by husband-and-wife philanthropists Garreth and Nicola Wood, works to improve children’s access to surgery at hospitals in poorer countries.

So far, the charity says it has installed 50 paediatric operating rooms across Africa and aims to more than double those centres to 120 by 2030.

Updated: March 20, 2022, 7:44 AM