WASHINGTON – Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) director, Dr Carissa Etienne said accelerating access to COVID-19 vaccines will be key to protecting populations, particularly the most vulnerable considering the latest metrics related to the viral illness in the region.
With 20 countries yet to reach the World Health Organisation’s year-end vaccination target of 40 per cent, and the Omicron variant now detected in six countries in the region, Etienne said access to vaccines was an urgent priority.
“The arrival of a new variant doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse, but it does mean that we must be extra-vigilant,” she said in a media briefing on Wednesday, urging for continued vaccination and public health measures.
Over 782 655 new COVID infections and 10,950 deaths were reported in the Americas last week, yet only 55 per cent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated.
In some countries, including Haiti, Jamaica, and St Vincent & the Grenadines, coverage remains much lower.
While the region is “racing to get people protected from this virus”, the PAHO director appealed for a long-term strategy that considers the duration of protection of the vaccines, their impact on different age groups, and the behaviour of new variants.
With 1.6 million doses of COVID vaccine arriving in the region this week and more expected to follow, it is crucial that “vulnerable groups like our indigenous peoples, the elderly, and those with existing conditions that leave them at higher risk of severe COVID should be first in line,” Dr Etienne said.
In countries with high overall coverage however, rates of vaccination among people over the age of 60 remains lower, and in countries where vaccination is further behind, healthy people are also being protected first.
“This lack of prioritisation is perilous because it keeps our elderly vulnerable and our health systems at risk,” Etienne said.
She also highlighted the importance of ensuring long-term, sustainable access to vaccines, emphasising the crucial role of PAHO’s Revolving Fund – a vaccine purchasing mechanism that has already secured more than U.S. $1 billion in vaccines for the region this year.
“By using our Revolving Fund, countries are guaranteed access to quality-assured vaccines at fair prices through a transparent mechanism,” Etienne said.
As the year draws to a close and countries deploy doses to reach the WHO’s year-end targets, the PAHO director pleaded for equity and preparedness.
“We need a reliable supply of doses, so that our COVID vaccination campaigns do not widen the inequities that have long divided our region,” she said.
Over the past week, COVID cases have increased in the region – Trinidad & Tobago continued to experience jumps in COVID cases, hospitalisations, and deaths, while other smaller islands, such as the Cayman Islands, also witnessed increases in COVID infections.