However, there are some signs of progress: in 2020, the countries surveyed reported that, on average, around half of essential health services were interrupted. In the first 3 months of 2021, that figure had dropped to just over a third of services.
Many countries have now stepped up efforts to mitigate disruptions. These include informing the public about changes in service delivery and providing advice on ways to seek health care safely. They are identifying and prioritizing patients with the most pressing needs.
More than half of countries say they have hired additional staff to increase the health workforce; redirected patients to other care facilities; and they have switched to alternative methods of providing care, such as providing more home services, multi-month prescriptions for treatment and increasing the use of telemedicine.
WHO and its partners have also helped countries to better respond to the challenges posed to their health systems; strengthen primary health care and promote universal health coverage.
“It is encouraging to see that countries are starting to rebuild their essential health services, but much remains to be done,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“The survey highlights the need to step up efforts and take further steps to fill gaps and strengthen services. It will be particularly important to monitor the situation in countries that were struggling to provide health services before the pandemic. “
Countries have yet to make important decisions when responding to COVID-19, which could negatively impact access to treatment for other health problems.
The redeployment of personnel to provide relief to COVID-19 and the temporary closures of health facilities and services continue, the United Nations health agency said.
Although they may have hired new staff, 66% of countries continue to report health workforce reasons as the most common causes of service interruptions.
Supply chains are also still disrupted in nearly a third of countries, compromising the availability of essential drugs, diagnostics and PPE needed to deliver care safely and effectively.
More than half of the countries report service interruptions due to patients not seeking treatment and due to distrust and fear of contracting the infection.
Meanwhile, 43% of countries cite financial challenges as the main causes of disruptions.
Millions of people are still losing vital health care, WHO figures show. Nearly half of the countries reported that the most affected area was the provision of daily primary care to prevent and manage some of the most common health problems.
Long-term care for chronic diseases, rehabilitation and palliative care at the end of life are also still severely disrupted. 20% of countries say that emergency, critical and potentially life-saving surgical interventions are still interrupted, and two-thirds of countries also report interruptions in elective surgeries.
Among the health services most affected are mental, neurological and substance use disorders; neglected tropical diseases; tuberculosis; HIV and hepatitis B and C; cancer screening and services for other noncommunicable diseases, including hypertension and diabetes; family planning and contraception; urgent dental care; and malnutrition.
More than a third of countries continue to report interruptions to immunization services, despite 20% and 30% fewer interruptions than in 2020.
“We cannot allow today’s fight against COVID-19 to jeopardize our fight against measles, polio or other vaccine-preventable diseases. Prolonged interruptions of immunization will have long-term consequences for the health of children. The time to catch up is now, “said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
40% of countries also report interruptions to one or more malaria services. While 10% fewer countries reported interruptions in malaria diagnosis and treatment than in 2020 and 25-33% fewer countries reported interruptions to malaria prevention campaigns, the level of interruption is still significant and needs to be addressed urgently, the WHO said in a statement.
The agency said it will continue to support countries so they can respond to growing tensions on health systems.
This includes support mechanisms to accelerate equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments and the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, which guides actions taken nationally, regionally and globally to address COVID-19.
The organization also focuses on accomplishing the work it committed to before the pandemic. Through the “Boost Initiative” covering 115 countries, it has strengthened its ability to provide further support, so that countries can maintain essential health services during the pandemic and move towards universal health coverage.