COVID-19 could have disastrous implications for 12 million breastfeeding women and their babies in high risk countries, warns CARE International

Photo: Midwife Glenys Wusi, 50, cares for a pregnant woman in a rural clinic in Sierra Leone © 2019 Josh Estey/CARE.

Geneva, May 28, 2020: According to recent data from the INFORM risk database, eight countries face the highest risk of the health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 community transmission. Within this population a CARE International analysis estimates that there are around 12 million breastfeeding mothers and more than 1.6 million pregnant women. In these countries alone, six of which are in Africa, there are almost 52 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. 

“One of the biggest worries with the spread of the coronavirus across the global south is that attendance of women to maternal health services is already dropping, and could continue to dramatically decrease as the pandemic continues,” says Isadora Quay, CARE International’s Global Gender in Emergencies Coordinator. “For new and expecting mothers in developing countries, combining the secondary implications of this pandemic - severely disrupted lifesaving primary health services and a looming hunger crisis - the outcomes could be nothing short of heart breaking.”

Across West Africa, for example, the use of health centers has considerably decreased since the outbreak of COVID-19, especially in urban centers. “People are either afraid of contracting diseases by going to the centers or they say that social distancing measures significantly increase waiting times, making it inconvenient to access service,” says Quay. “One pregnant woman in Sierra Leone - which already has the third highest maternal mortality rate in the world - told us that because of false rumors about the coronavirus and health workers, her husband forbade her from going to antenatal consultations." During past epidemics, such as the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, disruption of health services - combined with fear of seeking treatment during the outbreak - contributed to an estimated 3,600 maternal deaths, neonatal deaths and stillbirths - almost as many deaths as those caused directly by the Ebola virus in the country.

According to data from the UN Population fund, significant levels of lockdown-related disruption over six months could leave 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to a projected 7 million additional unintended pregnancies. “We know this will have devastating effects on the health and well-being of women and girls, including increasing their risk for maternal death. Modern contraception prevents up to 30 percent of maternal deaths every year because it allows women to delay their first pregnancies until they are psychically and emotionally ready and space later pregnancies to allow women’s bodies to recover,” adds Quay.   

In Somalia and South Sudan, two of the countries at highest risk of health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19, maternal mortality rates were already amongst the highest in the world

“In Koang, Pariang county, a pregnant woman recently told us that she felt sick; without access to a nearby health facility she resorted to taking traditional medicine which resulted in the termination of the pregnancy at four months,” explains Rosalind Crowther, CARE Country Director in South Sudan. “Proper postnatal care is critical for mothers and newborns. If they don’t have access they risk dying during delivery or in the first days following the childbirth.” 

In Somalia, where 1.3 million people are already suffering from acute food and nutrition insecurity the upcoming lean season will most likely severely worsen an already dire situation, especially for pregnant women and new mothers; “pregnant women are bound to suffer the most not only from the lack of food, but also because they will have to travel greater distances for check-ups and treatments, as the drought will further hinder their access to health facilities, on top of the restrictive measures put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus,” says Abdi Nur Elmi, CARE Somalia Emergency Director.


Note to editors:

The eight countries (Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Chad, Haiti, and Burundi) facing the highest risk of health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 (based on community transmission) was taken from the INFORM Humanitarian Risk Index and data on populations within those countries in need of humanitarian assistance from the OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Overview

The breastfeeding women and pregnancy estimates in this press release were calculated using calculations from the Inter-agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings: 2010, and using World Bank data on the crude birth rate per 1,000 within the eight countries. While these are not precise figures, in the absence of updated data for the affected population, they are considered accurate indications of the number of pregnant and breastfeeding women prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on these calculations it is estimated that within these eight countries, there are 

  • 12 million currently breastfeeding women
  • 1.6 pregnant women (per month)
  • 2 million births (per month)


CARE International:

CARE is the leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty by lifting up women and girls. It reached 68 million vulnerable people in 100 countries around the world in 2019. Since the onset of COVID, CARE has pivoted its life-saving food security, health services, educational, and women’s empowerment programming to directly fighting the spread and impact of the disease. As of mid-May 2020, CARE has reached more than 123 million people with COVID-specific or adapted programs. Over 3 million people have been directly reached with hygiene messaging, 694,000 with hygiene kits, 956,000 with increased water, 594,000 with food assistance and 216,000 with cash/vouchers.

Media contact:


Ninja Taprogge
Global COVID-19 Media Coordinator
tel: +49 151 701 674 97