Director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne is calling for all regional governments to continue the immunization process for highly contagious viruses and diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Etienne made that call during PAHO’s weekly address on Tuesday, as the region celebrates the 18th annual Vaccination Week in the Americas.
She said governments should not drop the proverbial ball on immunizing their citizens for other viruses or diseases such as measles, polio and influenza.
Director Etienne said she believes governments should approach vaccinations in 2020 with “an acute sense of urgency”.
“Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, immunization can and must be delivered by the health services alongside the response to COVID-19,” the PAHO diector reasoned.
“This is why first we must vaccinate to protect health workers, the elderly, and vulnerable populations from other respiratory infections, such as influenza and pneumococcus which can lead to more hospitalizations and maybe harder diagnose in the context of COVID-19,” she added.
Risk of outbreaks if immunizations are not conducted
Dr Etienne, who is also the World Health Organisation’s Regional Director for the Americas, warned that if governments fall behind on their immunization routines, they stand the risk of experiencing outbreaks which would further overwhelm hospitals and clinics in addition to COVID-19.
“The impact on our health systems would take months or even years to reverse … If you don’t immunize now many more people are going to get sick from preventable diseases in coming months and years,” she stated.
History shows preventable diseases reemerge after epidemics
Dr Etienne also pointed to historic data which shows that if large gaps in immunization coverage are present after wars or epidemics, preventable diseases can reemerge.
“Let me remind you that measles was eliminated in our region in 2016 but as coverage rates dropped, we faced imported measles outbreaks in Venezuela, Brazil, Columbia, and a few of the states of the United States,” Dr Etienne stated
She added: “Efforts to control measles must continue safely, amid the COVID-19 pandemic or we risk erasing more than 20 years of progress.”
COVID-19 impacting immunization programmes
During her speech, Dr Etienne noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many countries to struggle with immunization coverage which is a cause for concern.
She said it has impacted various vaccination programmes, interrupted vaccine supply routes, reduced the availability of health workers to deliver immunizations, and hindered access to primary care services.
PAHO providing detailed guidance
In the meantime, Dr Etienne said that PAHO has issued detailed guidance to several countries to help them plan and make decisions on which vaccines to prioritize during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the potential risks and the burden of the pandemic on the health care systems have been considered within the guidance.
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