PAHO: Dwindling routine vaccinations cause for concern
Washington, D.C. – Director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne warned on Wednesday that while the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to kill an estimated 4 000 lives weekly in the Americas and Monkeypox cases rise, the polio virus has now been detected among unvaccinated communities in the American city of New York.
Consequently, Etienne urged countries, including those in the Caribbean, to immediately strengthen surveillance and routine vaccination campaigns.
The PAHO director said although the United States mounted a swift public health response following the detection, polio was a disease that she never expected to see in the Americas again.
“It’s been nearly 30 years since the Americas became the first global region to wipe out wild polio,” she said, noting however that “dwindling vaccination rates, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left many of our populations unprotected.”
PAHO said polio, which can spread quickly among communities with insufficient vaccination coverage, is not a treatable disease, but it is fully preventable with vaccines.
Yet, vaccination coverage has fallen below 80 per cent in nearly all of South America, and 12 countries in the region are at high or very high risk of experiencing an outbreak.
PAHO said it was working closely with the U.S. and issued several alerts to member states to remain vigilant and take measures to proactively reach unvaccinated populations with a polio vaccine.
“We must not take the life-saving power of vaccines for granted,” Etienne said, urging countries of the Americas to step up their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, particularly in the Caribbean, where a number of islands are falling behind.
“If we remain committed, we can keep COVID-19 under control,” she said. “Not by ignoring it, but by continuing to make use of the many tools we have at our disposal to trace, and most importantly prevent, infections.”
The PAHO director said this included public health measures that must be promoted, particularly in places where many remain unvaccinated, or where cases are climbing.
Regarding the Monkeypox outbreak in the region, she warned that cases are also on the rise in parts of the Americas and while deaths remain extremely rare, those with weakened immune systems are at risk of complications from Monkeypox infection.
Etienne said PAHO was working on the expansion of testing capacity in the region, but countries must “act now to control the spread”, particularly while vaccine supplies remain limited.
The PAHO director said active engagement of affected communities is crucial. Testing and contact tracing can also have a significant impact on reducing transmission.
As PAHO prepares to meet with Ministers of Health from across the Americas at the Pan American Sanitary Conference, she highlighted the opportunity to discuss challenges towards ensuring health and making agreements on how to move forward.
Etienne said this landmark event is not only a chance to look back and learn from the past, but it was also an opportunity to look towards the future and “our vision of a more equitable region, in which we work together to improve health for all”.