Child health services during a COVID-19 outbreak in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa

C Jensen, N H McKerrow


Background. Current evidence indicates that children are relatively spared from direct COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality, but that the indirect effects of the pandemic pose significant risks to their health and wellbeing.

Objectives. To assess the impact of the local COVID-19 outbreak on routine child health services.

Methods. The District Health Information System data set for KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provincial health services was accessed, and monthly child health-related data were extracted for the period January 2018 - June 2020. Chronological and geographical variations in sentinel indicators for service access, service delivery and the wellbeing of children were assessed.

Results. During April - June 2020, following the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in KZN, significant declines were seen for clinic attendance (36%; p=0.001) and hospital admissions (50%; p=0.005) of children aged <5 years, with a modest recovery in clinic attendance only. Among service delivery indicators, immunisation coverage recovered most rapidly, with vitamin A supplementation, deworming and food supplementation remaining low. Changes were less pronounced for in- and out-of-hospital births and uptake rates of infant polymerase chain reaction testing for HIV at birth, albeit with wide interdistrict variations, indicating inequalities in access to and provision of maternal and neonatal care. A temporary 47% increase in neonatal facility deaths was reported in May 2020 that could potentially be attributed to COVID-19-related disruption and diversion of health resources.

Conclusions. Multiple indicators demonstrated disruption in service access, service delivery and child wellbeing. Further studies are needed to establish the intermediate- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on child health, as well as strategies to mitigate these.

Authors' affiliations

C Jensen, Health Systems Strengthening Unit, Health Systems Trust, Durban, South Africa

N H McKerrow, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, South Africa; Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa; Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; Outbreak; Children; Child health; Impact; Service delivery; Routine health services

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2021;111(2):114-119. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v111i2.15243

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-12-15
Date published: 2020-12-15

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