Friday 10 July, 2020

PAHO director says there will likely be recurring COVID-19 outbreaks

Carissa Etienne

Carissa Etienne

The Director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Carissa Etienne, has suggested that “in the absence of effective treatments or a widely available vaccine, health officials expect that over the next two years the region of the Americas will experience recurring COVID-19 outbreaks, which may be interspersed with periods of limited transmission.”

Etienne added that “In the face of a fast-changing pandemic, leadership will make or break our response. Now is the time for leaders to reach across political divisions and geographic borders to rally the support for a response commensurate to this unprecedented crisis.”

She was speaking during a recent press briefing.

According to PAHO, cases of COVID-19 in the Americas have topped 4.5 million, with 226,000 deaths as of June 23.

Since last month, cases have tripled in Latin America and the Caribbean, from almost 690,000 up to May 23, to more than two million to date.

“There is now widespread transmission in most of Central America. In South America this weekend, Brazil surpassed one million COVID-19 cases, joining the United States as the only other country in the world with cases in the six digits. The Caribbean is faring better, but with hot spots on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as within the Guyanese shield,” said Etienne.

“We must be realistic about the future: all of us must adjust to a new way of life and redefine our sense of normal,” Etienne added.

Member states discussed this week in the PAHO Executive Committee a resolution that seeks to balance the triple threat the pandemic represents to the health of the people of the region, their social welfare, and the national economies.

The PAHO’s director said countries in the region need to adjust and co-ordinate their COVID-19 response based on increasingly detailed data.

“Governments will have to make decisions, considering simultaneously health, economic and social indicators. This will allow health officials to understand where transmission is accelerating, and which groups are at greater risk, so as to better target their efforts,” she added.

Flexible responses are key, she noted.

“Public health measures, as well as social protection efforts, will need to be reviewed regularly to minimise the impact of the virus in our societies. The provision of social, financial and fiscal protection, especially in communities heavily dependent on informal economies, is critical.

“We will not overcome this crisis without addressing the needs of the most vulnerable: those most likely to fall sick and the least likely to receive care, such as indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, the urban poor, and migrant populations. If we neglect them, we run the risk of the next two years looking like the past few months,” Etienne stated.

She made a call to “prioritise early detection of suspected cases, laboratory testing, contact tracing and quarantine as the foundation of a targeted and sustainable strategy to control COVID-19,” noting that more investments in human resources, supplies, improved surveillance, and development and adoption of new tools, will be needed.

“We must also continue to strengthen our health systems, which are our strongest defence against COVID-19 today and in the future. PAHO’s recommendation of public health expenditure benchmark of at least six per cent of GDP is relevant now, more than ever. And from all public health investments, at least 30 per cent should be allocated to the first level of care,” she added.

The PAHO director said, “If we allocate resources to primary health clinics, hospitals and laboratories, grow our health workforce, invest in essential public health and expand our stockpiles and supplies, we can stay ahead of the pandemic and save lives.”

She called for concerted regional co-operation against COVID-19.

“Though we rejoice when one country successfully flattens its COVID-19 epidemic curve, the risk of re-emergence will always remain unless we flatten the curve regionally and globally,” she warned.

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