Published: 06th August 2020
WHO urges Southeast Asia region members to bolster essential health services hit by COVID-19
The World Health Organization on Thursday urged the member nations of its southeast Asia region to maintain essential health services and accelerate resumption of healthcare facilities
The World Health Organization on Thursday urged the member nations of its southeast Asia region to maintain essential health services and accelerate resumption of healthcare facilities hit by the pandemic as an integral part of the COVID-19 response. The pandemic has put immense strain on health systems across the South-East Asia Region.
Previous disease outbreaks have shown that disruption to essential services caused by an outbreak can be more deadly than the outbreak itself, said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the Regional Director WHO South-East Asia Region, on Thursday.
"We must fast track efforts and do all we can to avoid that from happening while continuing efforts to break the COVID-19 transmission chain," she stressed during a virtual meeting with ministers of health from the region. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, repurposing of health workers, cancellation of elective care, closure of outpatient services, insufficient personal protective equipment and changes in treatment policy have significantly impacted the delivery of essential services, she said.
Additionally, changes in health-seeking behaviour, constrained physical access and financial hardship have also limited service uptake, Singh said. "We must strengthen our evidence and knowledge-base on how essential services can be maintained. We must continue to innovate, accelerate our efforts to sustain our gains while sharing our experiences and learnings and adapting policies to suit local contexts and transmission scenarios," the regional director WHO South-East Asia Region said.
Strengthening health system resilience with a focus on primary healthcare is key to maintaining and strengthening essential health services amid the "new normal", she said. "The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has reiterated the critical importance of building strong primary healthcare systems that can withstand acute events while continuing to provide services required to meet most people's needs.
"A rapid assessment of 25 essential services carried out by WHO in May showed significant disruptions to essential health services around the globe, including the world health body's South-East Asia Region. Routine immunization and supplementary measles and rubella campaigns were disrupted in eight of the region's 11 countries. Both out-patient and in-patient services for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases and cancer have been greatly affected, she said.
The most affected service has been that of mental health, which is so critical in these difficult times. Across the region, family planning, antenatal care and institutional childbirth services have been reduced significantly, impacting capacity to accelerate reductions in maternal and neonatal mortality, Singh said. Pressures on the health system, reduced service utilisation, damaged supply chains and the potential for reductions in health spending could inhibit progress towards universal health coverage and weaken the battle against antimicrobial resistance (AMR), she said.
If case detection for tuberculosis drops by 50 per cent over a period of three months, the region could return to 2012 levels of the disease prevalence, she cautioned. "Strengthening and maintaining essential health services has been one of the region's core priorities from the beginning of the pandemic and will continue to be a key area of focus. The health and well-being of the region's near two billion people is at stake and with it the sustainable development of more than a quarter of the world's population," Singh said.