According to new estimates from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and Avenir Health, this has led to around 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.
These latest figures come as many countries, particularly high-income nations, show early signs of steeply declining birth rates.
Together, the findings demonstrate how the pandemic has severely impacted women’s control over their own reproductive health, and undermined family planning.
Contraceptives out of stock
Analysing contraceptive service disruptions last year in 115 lower and middle income countries, data from UNFPA, Google Mobility and other surveys, found that access to family planning was hit by travel restrictions, interrupted supply chains and overwhelmed health facilities, among other factors.
“The results, for many women, have been life-changing”, according to the UN sexual and reproductive health agency.
UNFPA profiled a 32-year-old Nepalese woman who married at 17, became a mother of four by age 24, and became pregnant after the nearby health centre ran out of contraceptives. Her fifth baby was born on 25 February.
Unintended pregnancies put a great strain on families that are already struggling under pandemic-related financial burdens, the UN agency explained.
And its consequences are not simply economic, they are also linked to increased maternal morbidity, mortality and unsafe abortions.
UNFPA’s projections showed that family planning services were largely disrupted in April and May of last year for an average of 3.6 months.
Earlier estimates, produced in April 2020, illustrated that serious family planning disruptions lasting six months could affect 47 million women in low and middle income countries, and result in seven million unintended pregnancies.
Fortunately, quick action has helped many health systems to maintain or restore essential health services, including contraceptives, said UNFPA.
The agency pointed out that even amid rising costs and supply chain constraints, it was able to procure and deliver contraceptives and other reproductive health supplies, as well as personal protective equipment for health workers.
Creative efforts, such as using a ride-hailing app to deliver contraceptives, SMS outreach and targeting family planning counselling to quarantine centres, also helped maintain or restore services.
UNFPA sad that many women continue to face serious obstacles to receiving family planning and other life-saving reproductive health services.
A growing price
Although the total costs of the pandemic are not yet known, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.5 million people around the world have died from COVID-19.
When the full toll is calculated, UNFPA upheld that it will have to include the “extraordinary consequences” borne by women and girls, including those whose futures were rewritten, bodies injured or lives lost due to disruptions in access contraception and health care.