The WHO and UNICEF have expressed concern over what they describe as an “alarming decline” of children’s immunization programs, hospital visits for serious issues, including heart attacks and even a reversal in the fight against AIDS.
United Nations agencies are warning that the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to trigger famine and outbreaks of other diseases that could prove far more deadly than the coronavirus itself.
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expressed grave concern over what they described as an “alarming decline” of children’s immunization programs in the past four months. Three-quarters of the countries surveyed reported disruptions in their immunization drives. At least 30 measles vaccinations campaigns are at risk or have already been canceled. Meanwhile, the rate of children immunized against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis has dropped for the first time in 28 years. “COVID-19 has made previously routine vaccination a daunting challenge,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, warning of potential epidemics of preventable diseases due to the disruption, “we cannot trade one health crisis for another.”
The data suggests the problem is most severe in Latin American, African and Asian countries who have less developed healthcare infrastructures. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “the avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself.”
Generalized concern over catching the deadly virus that has already claimed over 580,000 lives is keeping seriously ill people away from hospitals. New research shows that more than half of people suffering heart attacks worldwide did not seek emergency medical treatment for fear of catching the virus. “The risk of dying of a heart attack is much greater than that of dying of COVID-19,” said Professor Barbara Casadei, President of the European Society of Cardiology. “Moreover, cardiac death is largely preventable if patients with a heart attack come to hospital in time to get treatment. What we are witnessing is an unnecessary loss of life. Our priority must be to stop this from happening. We must continue to save the lives we know how to save.”
UNICEF also warns that progress made in the fight against AIDS could stagnate or even reverse if patients are unable to access services because resources have been reallocated to fight the coronavirus. “4.2 million children, adolescents and pregnant women living with HIV globally require uninterrupted access to life-saving treatment, with 89 per cent living in sub-Saharan Africa – COVID-19 threatens to put them all at risk,” it wrote.
While the continent has officially only suffered 630,000 infections and 13,820 deaths, the lack of testing kits put Africa’s COVID-19 figures in doubt. Even South Africa, which has tested more of its citizens per capita than any other major African state has only done so at one quarter the rate of the United States. Preparing for a pandemic and the possibility of famines and other outbreaks of disease, South African authorities are digging over 1.5 million graves as a precaution, fearing the worst.
Famine of “biblical proportions”
The 2020 edition of the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition report was released on Monday and makes sobering reading. Despite the advances China has made, the number of hungry people worldwide has increased by nearly 60 million people in the last five years; 19 percent of Africans, eight percent of Asians, and seven percent of those living in Latin America and the Caribbean are undernourished. The report estimates that a minimum of 83 million more people, and as many as 132 million around the world, will go hungry this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide economic collapse it is bringing with it.
The World Food Program similarly cautions that those in Yemen and the Horn of Africa will be particularly affected. “I must warn you,” said David Beasley, the World Food Program’s Director-General, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”
Whatever the outcome of COVID-19, the UN is calling for a transition to a more sustainable system of food production, featuring far more locally-produced, small scale agriculture, something it suggests would greatly improve diets and life expectancy, including in the West, and would save the world trillions of dollars in medical expenses every year.
Feature photo | Dr. Adriana Coronel stands inside the room of a COVID-19 patient at the Eurnekian Ezeiza Hospital on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 14, 2020, during a government-ordered lockdown. Natacha Pisarenko | AP
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.