Region Warned Of ‘Avalanche Of Worsening Health Issues’ If COVID Disruption Continues

(CMC) – The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted essential health services in most countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean, threatening immunisation of children and care of expectant mothers and people with chronic conditions, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr Carissa F Etienne has warned.

“We, therefore, urge countries to ensure their COVID-19 responses do not leave other essential health services, like routine immunisations, behind. These services are not optional,” she said at her weekly press briefing on Wednesday, adding that PAHO is helping countries “adjust and rethink how essential care is delivered at the first level”.

Etienne said that more than 300,000 children, mostly in Mexico and Brazil, have missed routine immunisations, “leaving them vulnerable to deadly yet preventable infections”.

“Coverage of the first dose of measles vaccines dropped by 10 per cent in eight countries in the Americas, including Venezuela, Panama, and Brazil, and dropped as much as 20 per cent in Suriname,” she continued. “If we do not reverse these trends, we risk an avalanche of worsening health issues.”

Etienne added that in a recent survey of health services in the region, 97 per cent of participating countries and territories reported disrupted health services while 45 per cent reported disruptions in at least half of their health services.

“Soon, COVID-19 will not be the only health crisis demanding countries’ attention,” she said.

PAHO is supporting countries in finding alternatives for delivering health services. Many health systems, including in Chile and Peru, have embraced telemedicine, while others have launched community outreach programs so patients can get medical care while they’re in their homes.

The PAHO director advised countries to hire and train additional staff so that all health workers have the tools and resources to safely provide care.

“We know that the economic blowback of this pandemic is forcing countries to make difficult choices on where to prioritise spending, but we cannot afford to cut corners on health,” she said.

“That is why investing in the first level of care now is a smart choice so we can reverse trends more efficiently and equitably than if we wait for health crises to surface. As the adage goes: ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.”

Turning to the pandemic’s continued “devastating toll in our region”, she noted that Cuba is experiencing higher COVID-19 infection and death rates than at any point in the pandemic, and all age groups are affected.

In total, over 1.26 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 29,000 deaths were reported in the Americas in the past week, Etienne said.

While infections mount, “our region has yet to access the vaccines it needs to keep our populations safe,” she said. “So far, just 16.6 per cent of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

The PAHO director also called attention to World Hepatitis Day, on Wednesday. The survey reporting broad disruption of essential health services also reported that diagnosis and treatment of Hepatitis B and C have been interrupted by the COVID-19 response.