WASHINGTON, USA, (PAHO) — Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F Etienne of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported Friday, that more than one million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have died from the disease and called on the world to intensify efforts to improve the region’s access to vaccines.
“More than one million lives have been cut short because of COVID-19. This is a tragic milestone for everyone in the region,” said Dr Etienne. “This pandemic is far from over, and it is hitting Latin America and the Caribbean severely, affecting our health, our economies, and entire societies. Yet only about 3 percent of our citizens have been vaccinated.”
According to figures reported by countries as of May 21, 2021, 1,001,781 people have died as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Latin America and the Caribbean. Almost 89% of the deaths occurred in five countries: Brazil (44.3%), México (22.1%), Colombia (8.3%), Argentina (7.3) and Peru (6.7%). Three percent of the deaths were concentrated in Central America and 1 percent in the Caribbean.
“The region is an epicenter for COVID-19 suffering. It should be an epicenter for vaccination, too,” Dr Etienne said. More than 153.5 million people have been immunized in the Americas, but only 21.6 percent of these are in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In contrast, in the United States, vaccination has been widespread, and marked improvements are already being observed, Dr Etienne pointed out. Almost half of Americans have received at least one COVID vaccine dose and nearly 85% of those over the age of 85 are fully protected, and the result has been a sharp reduction in COVID-19 infections, deaths and hospitalizations, she said.
“The progress we’re seeing in the US is a testament to the power of safe and effective COVID vaccines, but it underscores the vital importance of accelerating access to vaccines throughout our region, so that other countries can fully immunize their populations,” she continued. “We urgently need more vaccines for Latin America and the Caribbean, a region which has been sorely tested by this pandemic.”
She has congratulated countries that have indicated a willingness to donate tens of millions of excess vaccine doses and called on other countries to follow suit.
“We urge countries with extra doses to consider donating a significant portion of these to the Americas, where these life-saving doses are desperately needed and will be promptly used,” she has said.
PAHO has delivered more than 12 million COVAX-procured vaccine doses to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Another 770,000 doses are on the way to Central American and Caribbean countries.
Dr Etienne also called on people to continue to observe public health measures including wearing masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, and ventilating closed spaces when possible. She urged people to get vaccinated when called on by national governments, adding, “Vaccines are safe and effective and a major tool to stop this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, PAHO director calls for closing “glaring” vaccine gap by expanding vaccine production in Latin America and the Caribbean, emphasised: “Expanding our regional capacity to manufacture strategic medical supplies – especially vaccines – is a must, both for our people and as a matter of health security.”
Dr Etienne drew attention to the region’s “building blocks” for expanded production – strong academic and research institutions, manufacturing capacity, and regulatory systems, and an effective procurement mechanism. Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico have well-established vaccine manufacturing facilities, some of which are being updated to produce COVID-19 vaccines, she said: “We must ramp up production for the entire vaccine value chain – from the ingredients that go into vaccines to the vials and syringes that help us deliver them – without compromising quality.”
Dr Etienne added that the region must “embrace the promise of mRNA technologies,” which are the basis of the highly effective Moderna and Pfizer vaccines but could also be used for other vaccines, said: “PAHO is working closely with the World Health Organization on its COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub.”
PAHO also is in discussion with regional partners such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States, and its Member States to ensure that countries interested in expanding manufacturing have resources and support, she said. Argentina, Chile, and Peru are among those that have already shown interest.
“For this to work,” Dr Etienne said: “We need scale, a commitment to purchase regionally-made products, and assurance that products will flow freely and without export bans – even during emergencies. Our Revolving Fund stands ready to help purchase and deliver these products throughout our region – as we’ve done for the last 40 years.”
“A regional manufacturing network that builds on our national strengths and that is backed by sustained financial commitments is long overdue,” she continued. “It’s also our best hope for a long-term solution – because COVID will not be the last virus that tests our health systems.”