COVID-19 may have orphaned 7.5 million kids worldwide

Young boy with chin on knee

Worldwide, about 10.5 million children may have lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19 and 7.5 million were orphaned, according to new study that estimated excess mortality using World Health Organization (WHO) data.

In the study, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, a University of Oxford researcher led a team in analyzing excess COVID-19–related deaths from Jan 1, 2020, to May 1, 2022. The team noted that previous global total estimates and country-level comparisons were limited by inconsistencies in COVID-19 testing and incomplete death reporting.

An estimated 10.5 million children lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19, and 7.5 million were orphaned, with the greatest numbers in the Africa (24.3%) and Southeast Asia (40.6%) WHO regions and the least in the Americas (14.0%), Eastern Mediterranean (14.6%), European (4.7%), and Western Pacific (1.8%) regions.

In Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Nepal had the most bereaved children. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa were hardest hit. At the national level, the most bereft children were in India (3.5 million), Indonesia (660,000), Egypt (450,000), Nigeria (430,000), and Pakistan (410,000).

A 'public health imperative' to support orphans

The consequences of parental or caregiver loss and orphanhood can be catastrophic, the researchers said, including institutionalization, abuse, traumatic grief, mental illness, teen pregnancy, low educational achievement, and chronic and infectious diseases.

Little is apparently being done to care for the bereaved children despite billions of dollars being invested in preventing COVID-19 deaths, the authors said, with only Peru and the United States making national commitments to support orphans. But they added that the billions that have been spent to support AIDS-orphaned children show that there may be a solution.

"Urgently needed pandemic responses can combine equitable vaccination with life-changing programs for bereaved children," the researchers wrote. "Given the magnitude and lifelong consequences of orphanhood, integration into every national pandemic response plan of timely care for these children will help mitigate lasting adverse consequences."

The team called for each country to act to prevent caregiver deaths by accelerating vaccines, containment, and treatment; to prepare families to provide safe and nurturing alternative care should deaths occur; and to protect orphaned children through economic support, violence prevention, parental support, and guaranteed school access. "Effective, caring action to protect children from immediate and long-term harms of COVID-19 is an investment in the future and a public health imperative," they concluded.

National, regional, and global estimates of bereaved children, updated daily, are available through the Imperial College London COVID-19 Orphanhood Calculator. As of yesterday, the estimated number of children losing a parent or caregiver had risen to 10.6 million, and 7.6 million have been orphaned.

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