Covid-19 disrupts health services for non-communicable diseases: WHO

Covid-19 disrupts health services for non-communicable diseases: WHO

Geneva: Prevention and treatment services for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) have been severely disrupted since the Covid-19 pandemic began, according to a WHO survey released on Monday.

The survey, which was completed by 155 countries during a 3-week period in May, confirmed that the impact is global, but that low-income countries are most affected. The situation is of significant concern because people living with NCDs are at higher risk of severe Covid-19-related illness and death.

“The results of this survey confirm what we have been hearing from countries for a number of weeks now,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “Many people who need treatment for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have not been receiving the health services and medicines they need since Covid-19 pandemic began. It’s vital nations find innovative ways to ensure continuance of essential services for NCDs even as they fight Covid-19.”

The main finding is that health services have been partially or completely disrupted in many countries. More than half (53%) of the countries surveyed have partially or completely disrupted services for hypertension treatment; 49% for treatment for diabetes and diabetes-related complications; 42% for cancer treatment, and 31% for cardiovascular emergencies. Rehabilitation services have been disrupted in almost two-thirds (63%) of countries, even though rehabilitation is key to a healthy recovery following severe illness from Covid-19.

The most common reasons for discontinuing or reducing services were cancellations of planned treatments, a decrease in public transport available and a lack of staff because health workers had been reassigned to support Covid-19 services. Among the top five countries (20%) reporting disruptions, the main reasons for discontinuing services was shortage of medicines, diagnostics and other technologies.

Unsurprisingly, there appears to be a correlation between levels of disruption to services for treating NCDs and the evolution of the Covid-19 outbreak in a country. Services become increasingly disrupted as a country moves from sporadic cases to community transmission of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, encouraging findings of the survey were that alternative strategies have been established in most countries to support the people at highest risk to continue receiving treatment for NCDs. Among the countries reporting service disruptions, 58% are now using telemedicine (advice by telephone or online means) to replace in-person consultations as against 42 per cent in low-income countries. Triaging to determine priorities has been widely used, in two-thirds of countries reporting. Also, over 70% of countries reported collecting data on the number of Covid-19 patients who also have an NCD.

“It will be some time before we know the full extent of the impact of disruptions to health care during COVID-19 in people with noncommunicable diseases,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the Department of Noncommunicable Diseases at WHO. “What we know now, however, is that not only are people with NCDs more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with the virus, but many are unable to access the treatment they need to manage their illnesses…”

Noncommunicable diseases kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally.

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