Photo by Charlein Gracia (Credit: Unsplash)

LONDON, U.K. — Before the  pandemic, about 140 million children worldwide were orphans. Now, alarming new research estimates at least 5 million kids have lost a parent or guardian from COVID-19. Of that group, data shows that two-thirds are between the ages of 10 and 17.

Since the start of the pandemic (March 2020-April 2021), about 2.7 million children lost a parent or caretaker. The current study includes new data from 20 different countries in the past year. The team estimates the number of children losing a parent doubled in the past 6 months, from May 1, 2021, to October 31, 2021. This occurred when Delta was the dominant SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) illness worldwide and before Omicron.

Previous research had shown that men more than women were more likely to die from COVID-19 illness. In addition, one out of every four children lost their father because of the pandemic.

“We estimate that for every person reported to have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one child is left orphaned or loses a caregiver. That is the equivalent of one child every six seconds facing a heightened risk of lifelong adversity unless given appropriate support in time,” explains Susan Hillis, lead author of the study in a media release.

Estimated number of parental deaths after a COVID-19 infection

The study modeled the estimated number of COVID-19 deaths from the start of the pandemic to October 21, 2021. They used mortality and fertility data from countries that had high rates of COVID-19 deaths.

Results show about 3,367,000 orphaned children who recently lost a parent. Another 1,833,300 children lost a grandparent or adult caretaker living in their home. The number of deaths from a parent or caretaker was more than the number of COVID-19 deaths in children.

The highest rates for orphanhood were in Peru and South Africa. Regardless of the country, adolescents between 10 and 17 are more likely to become orphans than younger children. Although the researchers note the actual number of parent deaths is likely much higher as some countries lack a robust COVID-19 reporting system.

“It took 10 years for 5 million children to be orphaned by HIV/AIDS, whereas the same number of children have been orphaned by COVID-19 in just two years. Moreover, these figures do not account for the latest wave of the omicron COVID-19 variant, which may push the true toll even higher,” says senior author Professor Lorraine Sherr from University College London (UK).

Urgent need for more government programs to support orphans

The researchers advocate an urgent need to prioritize economic, educational, and community programs for orphaned children as part of the global pandemic response.

“Such support should focus on three core components: preventing caregiver death through equitable COVID-19 vaccine coverage, containment, and treatment; preparing families that are safe and nurturing to support affected children (such as through kinship care, foster care, and adoption); and protecting children using evidence-based strategies to reduce risks of poverty, childhood adversity, and violence. These strategies will help save lives now and put the programmatic and financial infrastructure in place on a global scale to secure a better future for children and families around the world,” says Dr. Hillis.

The study is published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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