The Covid-19 pandemic is severely affecting the care of sick or premature newborn babies, with many being unnecessarily separated from their mothers and put at risk of death or long-term health problems, global health experts said on Tuesday.
Two new studies cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that thousands of neonatal healthcare workers are not allowing mothers with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 infections to have skin-to-skin contact with their newborns, and nearly a quarter of those surveyed are not allowing breastfeeding.
Yet keeping mothers and babies together and encouraging all babies to have so-called "kangaroo mother care" – which involves early and very close contact between a mother and a newborn - could save more than 125,000 lives, according to a study published in the Lancet EclinicalMedicine journal.
Newborn babies all over the world have "a right to the life-saving contact they need with their parents", and this should not be denied due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said Anshu Banerjee, a WHO expert in maternal and newborn health.
"Decades of progress in reducing child deaths will be jeopardized unless we act now," he said in a statement.
The WHO says mothers should continue to share a room with their babies from birth and be able to breastfeed and have skin-to-skin contact – even when Covid-19 is suspected or confirmed.
But a study in the BMJ Global Health journal found that two-thirds of 1,120 healthcare workers surveyed worldwide said they would separate mothers and babies with a positive Covid-19 test or if it was not clear whether they might have Covid-19.
More than 85% of those surveyed reported fearing for their own health, with personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, stress and safety among the key concerns. In some hospitals, the survey found, vital resources including staff and oxygen supplies were being moved from newborn wards to Covid-19 wards.