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COVID-19 is inflicting “devastating” impacts on women, PAHO Director asserts

26 May 2021

Director calls for counteracting potential rollback of gains in women’s access to family planning and in reducing maternal mortality.

Washington, D.C., May 26, 2021 (PAHO) –Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne warned that continued disruption of women’s health services due to COVID-19 could “obliterate” more than 20 years of progress in reducing maternal mortality and increasing access to family planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

“I want to spotlight the devastating health, social and economic impacts that this virus has had on women,” Dr. Etienne said during her weekly media briefing.

Women have been particularly impacted by interruptions of reproductive and maternal health services, she said. “According to UN estimates, up to 20 million women in the Americas will have their birth control disrupted during the pandemic, either because services are unavailable or because women will no longer have the means to pay for contraception.”

Pregnancy and newborn care also have been interrupted in nearly half of countries in the Americas, she said. At the same time, pregnant women are more vulnerable to respiratory infections such as COVID-19. If they get sick, they tend to develop more serious symptoms that require intubation, which can put both the mother and baby at risk. 

“If this continues, the pandemic is expected to obliterate more than 20 years of progress in expanding women’s access to family planning and tackling maternal deaths in the region,” Dr. Etienne said. “Nearly all maternal deaths are preventable and even getting back to pre-pandemic levels of maternal mortality, which were already high, could take more than a decade.”

The maternal mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean declined from 96 to 74 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births between 2000 and 2017, an overall reduction of 23.1%.

Calling attention to the upcoming International Day of Action on Women’s Health, celebrated on May 28, Dr. Etienne said, “We urge countries to do just that – to act. We can start by ensuring that women and girls can access the health services they need – like sexual and reproductive health services, and pregnancy and newborn-related care – during the COVID response.”

“We must remember that the challenges and inequities that we faced prior to COVID haven’t gone away during the pandemic – they’ve only worsened and can’t be overlooked. That’s why we must make protecting the lives of women a collective priority,” she continued.

Cases and deaths are plateauing at alarmingly high levels

Dr. Etienne also drew attention to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) assertion last week that casualties due to COVID-19 have been seriously underreported. “COVID’s true global 2020 death toll is closer to three million people – nearly double the figures reported last year,” she said. “Worryingly, half of these deaths have taken place here, in the Americas, demonstrating the outsized impact this pandemic has had in our region.”

Last week over 1.2 million new COVID-19 cases and 31,000 deaths were reported in the Americas.

“These figures have remained unchanged over the last weeks, illuminating a worrying trend: cases and deaths are plateauing at alarmingly high levels,” Dr. Etienne said. “In fact, last week, four out of five of the countries reporting the highest number of new infections were here in our region, and Latin American countries represented the top five highest mortality rates worldwide.”

Increases in cases have been reported in Central American countries, including Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, and Honduras, where ICU beds are at more than 80% capacity. In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago has declared a national emergency following a recent COVID-19 outbreak. Cuba continues to report a significant increase, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are still experiencing spikes after people were moved to shelters because of recent volcanic eruptions. “We are also concerned about increasing trends in hospitalizations in Haiti,” Dr. Etienne noted.

In South America, new infections have declined in Chile, Peru, and Paraguay. But Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, after experiencing progress for several weeks, are once again seeing a rise in cases. Bolivia is reporting a dramatic increase in cases and deaths, and Guyana is experiencing its highest volume of cases and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

Contacts 

Daniel Epstein 
Nancy Nusser 
Sebastián Oliel
Ashley Baldwin 
Nadia Peimbert-Rappaport 
mediateam@paho.org