WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr. Carissa Etienne has attributed an increase in maternal mortality in the Americas, including the Caribbean, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, to lack of access to timely care and disruptions to prenatal services.
Dr. Etienne said one in three pregnant women are unable to access timely critical care.
With COVID-19 cases among pregnant women reaching more than 365,000 in the region over the past two years, and deaths surpassing 3, 000, the PAHO director said in a media briefing here that “this is a tragedy, especially now that we have safe and effective vaccines.”
A pregnant woman receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Havana last summer. (Photo courtesy of Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)
A pre-published PAHO study on maternal mortality across eight countries showed that from 447 pregnant women that died between March 1, 2020 and November 29, 2021.
PAHO said 90 percent were already experiencing life-threatening symptoms when admitted to hospital.
It also said that nearly 77 percent delivered their babies prematurely, and 60 percent were born with low birth weight “an issue that can impact the health of a child for the rest of its life.”
“We must prioritize women to ensure they are shielded from the worst of the pandemic,” Dr. Etienne said.
She said pregnant women, in particular, are “among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, due to changes in their immune system which can put them at risk for severe disease,” urging countries to urgently ramp up access to vaccines, ensure the continuation of health services that women depend on, and improve access to family planning services.
These are “life-saving services that should remain open now more than ever,” added the PAHO director.
She, however, said that even though most countries in the region recommend COVID-19 vaccination for pregnant women, their uptake is still very low.
“It is critical that health workers talk to expectant mothers about the importance of getting vaccinated to protect them, and their babies, from this virus,” Dr. Etienne said.
The PAHO director also called for greater emphasis on programs that address women of ethnic minorities, such as Afro-descendants, indigenous women and migrants who “are often at greater risk, due to the overlap of gender and social factors.”
In addition, Dr. Etienne highlighted the broader impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had on women and girls, including additional caregiving responsibilities and career disruptions.
She underscored that – as the majority of the health workforce – women have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, accounting for 72 percent of all COVID-19 cases among health professionals.
“In a region that is rife with inequality, women have, once again, been disproportionately affected,” she said.
Turning to the COVID-19 situation in the region, the PAHO director reported that new cases dropped to 32 percent from the previous week, reaching 1.5 million.
She said countries also reported 24,650 deaths, a 10 percent decline.
Dr. Etienne said these downward trends were seen throughout much of the region, with the exception of Central America where deaths rose by nearly 16 percent this week.