Almost two million babies are stillborn every year – one every 16 seconds – the United Nations said on Thursday. The warning that the COVID-19 pandemic could cause another 200,000 deaths is being described as devastating.

Around 84 percent of stillbirths occur in low- and middle-income countries, which is due to a lack of midwives and poor health care, said UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank group in a joint report. Improvements in basic prenatal care could save hundreds of thousands of lives each year, they added.

“The loss of a child at birth or during pregnancy is a devastating tragedy for a family that is often quietly endured all too often around the world,” said Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF.

“Beyond the loss of life, the psychological and financial costs to women, families and societies are severe and persistent. For many of these mothers, it just didn’t have to be that way. “

In 2019, three-quarters of stillbirths – defined in the report as a baby born 28 weeks or more gestationally with no signs of life – occurred in sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia.

The report warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in nearly 200,000 additional stillbirths, assuming 50 percent of health services in low- and middle-income countries are affected by the COVID-19 response.

Mark Hereward, deputy director of data and analysis at UNICEF, told AFP that infants in many countries would suffer from COVID-19 even if their mothers never got the disease.

“First, because of the massive increase in poverty due to global recessions,” he said.

“The other way is to disrupt health care, either because health care workers are being hired to work on COVID or because people are afraid to go to the clinic.”

Hereby said that without urgent action, the world will have suffered 20 million more stillbirths by 2030.

“I cried and cried”

About half of stillbirths in sub-Saharan Africa and central and southern Asia occur during labor, compared with just 6 percent in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, according to the United Nations.

Such deaths could be avoided if women received better care – particularly from trained nurses and midwives – during pregnancy and childbirth, the report said.

Sabine Uwizeye, a 35-year-old who lives in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, lost her baby when she went into labor in the 37th week of pregnancy.

“I knew something was wrong and the doctor told me my baby was dead. I could not believe it. I cried and cried, “she told AFP.

“The baby had many knots in the umbilical cord. I feel so bad that I can’t hold my sick baby. “

A mother and her baby in the Juba Teaching Hospital, the only fully functional maternity ward in the southern Sudanese capital. The country is one of the most dangerous places to give birth and be born, according to the United Nations. Only 9 percent of births are cared for by an experienced helper or midwife [File: Stefanie Glinski/AFP]Uwizeye is now the mother of a healthy 10-month-old child, but she urged expectant mothers to be vigilant about monitoring their baby’s health.

“Go ahead with checkups and make sure your pregnancy is normal,” she said.

In addition to the large differences in stillbirth rates between rich and poor countries, the report also found significant differences in rates within countries, often related to socio-economic status.

In Nepal, for example, women from minority castes have a stillbirth rate up to 60 percent higher than women from the upper class.

And in Canada, Inuit communities have a stillbirth rate nearly three times higher than the general population.

Anshu Banerjee, director of the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Aging at WHO told journalists on Wednesday that the world must “break out of this cocoon of taboos and stigma” that surrounds stillbirths.