Families will need support to access quality medical care to keep their newborns healthy with thousands of babies projected to be born this year in the Pacific region since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
New mothers and newborns will be greeted by harsh realities including regional containment measures such as lockdowns and curfews as well as possible supply and equipment shortages, and limited staff with the critical skills needed.
“The relative isolation of Pacific island countries and territories, combined with limited resources makes the Pacific extremely vulnerable during a global pandemic, and any wide scale local outbreak will put additional pressure on health care systems,” said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF Pacific Representative.
“With thousands of expecting mothers in the Pacific region facing strained healthcare systems, fear of infection and lockdowns with COVID-19, it is hard to imagine a whole new perspective of motherhood.”
More than 60,000 babies are expected to be born in the Pacific Island countries in the 40 weeks since the global pandemic was declared on March 11, with the expected highest number of births in the Solomon Islands with about 18,000 followed closely by Fiji with more than 15,000.
UNICEF warns that although evidence suggests that pregnant mothers are not more affected by COVID-19 than others, countries need to ensure they still have access to antenatal, delivery and postnatal services.
On behalf of mothers throughout the Pacific, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments and health care providers to save lives in the coming months by:
• Helping pregnant women to receive antenatal check-ups, skilled delivery care, postnatal care services, and care related to COVID-19 as needed;
• Ensuring health workers are provided with the necessary personal protective equipment so that they can deliver high quality care to all pregnant women and new-born babies during the pandemic;
• Guaranteeing that all infection prevention and control measures are in place in health facilities;
• Allowing health care workers to reach pregnant women and new mothers through home visits, encouraging women living in remote areas to use maternal waiting homes, and by using mobile health strategies for teleconsultations;
• Training, protecting and equipping health workers with clean birth kits to attend home births where health facilities are closed;
• Allocating resources to lifesaving services and supplies for maternal and child health.
While it is not yet known whether the virus is transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy and delivery, UNICEF recommends that all pregnant women:
• Follow precautions to protect themselves from exposure to the virus, closely monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 and seek advice from the nearest designated facility if they have concerns or experience symptoms;
• Take the same precautions to avoid COVID -19 infection as other people: practice physical distancing, avoid physical gatherings and use online health services;
• Seek medical care early in if they live in affected or at-risk areas and have fever, cough or difficulty breathing;
• Continue breastfeeding their baby even if they are infected or suspect being infected as the virus has not been found in samples of breastmilk. Mothers with COVID-19 should wear a mask when feeding their baby; wash hands before and after touching the baby; and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces;
• Continue to hold the new-born and perform skin-to-skin care;
• Ask their midwife or doctor where they feel is the safest place to give birth and have a birth plan in place to reduce anxiety and to ensure they get to the place on time;
• Continue medical support, including routine immunizations, after the baby is born.
“Never did I imagine a situation where pregnant women would have to live with a heightened fear of the world that they are bringing their child in to. We must work together to ensure that every pregnant mother receives the support she needs to give birth safely in the months to come,” said Yett.
To date, UNICEF together with WHO and other partners, have provided about 200,000 essential medical and laboratory items, as well as other supplies, to support COVID-19 response efforts in the region.
This assistance has been delivered to these countries according to their current needs, along with communication materials for governments to use in schools and communities, to inform the public about the symptoms of COVID-19, what to do if someone is feeling unwell, and actions to take to prevent the spread of the virus.
The analysis was based on data from World Population Prospects 2019 of the UN Population Division. An average full-term pregnancy typically lasts a complete nine months, or 39 to 40 weeks. For the purposes of this estimate, the number of births for a 40-week period in 2020 was calculated. The 40-week period of March 11 to December 16 is used in this estimate based upon the WHO’s March 11 assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.