Estimated 7.5 million children orphaned due to COVID-19


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Hillis S, et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.3157.

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Researchers estimated that 10.5 million children globally have lost a caregiver to COVID-19, including 7.5 million who were orphaned after losing a parent or primary caregiver, according to results published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Co-author H. Juliette T. Unwin, PhD, a research fellow at Imperial College London, told Healio that the idea for the project came from co-author Susan Hillis, PhD, from the Global Reference Group on Children Affected by COVID-19 at the University of Oxford.

“She’s done a lot of work with orphaned children globally and she was in a conversation with some people in Zambia, who were thinking about the fact that people who were dying from COVID were usually the more elderly people,” Unwin said. “In Zambia, there were lots of grandparents who were looking after their grandchildren, and they were very concerned about what would happen to these children if the grandparents were to die of COVID.”

Fellow co-author Joël-Pascal Ntwali N’konzi, MSc, a mathematician at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Kigali, Rwanda, was brought on to assist with analytics, and told Healio that because the researchers knew that COVID-19 deaths could be underreported, they used fertility estimates and counted on excess deaths to give a “more reliable picture of what’s happened with COVID-19.”

“If we look at the average [number of excess deaths] in the same past 5 years, we can know the expected number of deaths in normal situations that have no COVID,” N’konzi said. “We then counted deaths from all causes — not only COVID — and we took the difference and that difference is called excess deaths, basically. And so we used that to estimate what has actually happened.”

Using data from WHO, The Economist and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the researchers estimated that 10.5 million children globally lost parents or primary and/or secondary caregivers, and approximately 7.5 million experienced COVID-19-associated orphanhood through May 1, 2022.

“I had been working on COVID-19 responses at Imperial College, and I kind of was aware of the numbers of people who are dying, but I hadn’t really thought before what that would mean in terms of children who’ve lost caregivers,” Unwin said. “I was very personally struck just by the magnitude of the problem because it’s not something that that I had thought of really before.”

“Normally, we mostly care about ongoing infections and deaths, and we try to minimize that,” N’konzi said. “But we usually we don’t think about the children who are left, and most of us have been struck by the magnitude of the problem.”

Around 40% of the losses were recorded in Southeast Asia, and around 24% in Africa. The Americas comprised 14%, whereas the eastern Mediterranean region comprised 14.6%.

The researchers noted in the letter that “while billions of dollars are invested in preventing COVID-19-associated deaths, little is being done to care for children left behind.”

“We have kind of a three-pronged plan of attack, to sort of try and prevent COVID spread with vaccination and treatments to protect family members,” Unwin said. “If one parent dies, there would be uncles, grandparents, to help them care for the children and maybe give them some financial support and then protect their children from adverse childhood events. Governments are starting to respond, which is really nice to see. We just need more of them to take up the plight of the children.”

“We really need we need policymakers to start really thinking about these children, and this should be an investment in the future,” N’konzi added. “The magnitude of the problem can not only impact children in the present or the mid-term, but also the futures of our societies.”

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