PAHO director calls for concerted action to safeguard health of the planet, and its people: Americas at risk of further COVID-19 wave

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WASHINGTON, USA, (PAHO) – After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic with millions of lives lost to the virus, Pan American Health Organization Director (PAHO) Carissa F. Etienne, marked World Health Day by calling for the urgent protection of the environment and highlighted how the health of the planet is linked to our own.

“The so-called triple planetary crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution, is affecting the health of all people as well as our planet. Those effects are amplified by deficiencies in infrastructure and health systems to prevent diseases and effectively respond to crises, disasters, and emergencies,” the Director said in a high-level online event entitled “Our Planet, Our Health,” which was attended by over 400 participants.

Health ministers from the region, including Dr Carla Vizzotti, minister of health of Argentina, Dr Jose Manuel Matheu, secretary of health of Honduras and Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness of Jamacia participated in a virtual PAHO event to mark the day, as did Dr Jacqueline Alvarez, director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

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Focusing on the Americas as one of the most unequal regions in the world, “where wealth inequality, political inequality, and social inequality are rampant,” Dr Etienne highlighted that “extra transformative efforts must be taken to protect the health of the most vulnerable populations from environmental risks.”

“Over the past three decades, we have witnessed concerted global action to build a sustainable planet. During this period, we have noted enhancements in health services and improvements in the health of peoples in the region of the Americas,” the PAHO director said. Intersectoral collaboration across the health and water and sanitation sectors, for example, has reduced the mortality risk among children under 5 years from 219 to 23 deaths per 100,000 population – that is 1.8 million young lives saved since 1990,” Dr Etienne said.

Nevertheless, every year in the Americas, an estimated one million premature deaths are attributable to avoidable environmental risks. Air pollution, contaminated water, inadequate sanitation including solid waste management, risks related to certain hazardous chemicals, and negative impacts related to climate change are the most pressing environmental public health threats for the region.

“Today’s World Health Day theme – Our Planet, Our Health – is a call for a green and healthy recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which places the health of individuals and the planet at the center of actions and fosters a movement to create societies focused on well-being,” added Dr Etienne, calling on Member States to recommit to regional solidarity and to strengthen individual and collective actions to better protect the region’s health.

To help countries advance in meeting the environment and health challenges, PAHO last year launched the Agenda for the Americas on Health, Environment, and Climate Change, 2021–2030, the Director said. The Agenda will benefit all countries and territories by, among others, promoting good governance practices, strengthening leadership and coordination roles in the health sector, and fostering cross-sectoral action.

“The future depends on us as we are not only the custodians of today but the architects of tomorrow,” Dr Etienne said.

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Meanwhile, vaccination campaigns must focus on protecting the most vulnerable, as cases of COVID-19 surge in Europe and East Asia due to Omicron BA.2, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) director Etienne has urged countries to remain vigilant and urgently close vaccination gaps.

While COVID cases and deaths have dropped across much of the region, countries have reported more than 620,000 new cases each week. And in parts of North America and the Caribbean, where Omicron is becoming the predominant variant, new infections are beginning to rise.

With Omicron BA.2 already detected in 8.7 percent of sequences reported from South America, “time and time again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here just a few weeks later,” the director said in a media briefing Wednesday.

“We cannot ignore the risk of further COVID-19 surges,” she added. But we now “know what it takes to protect our people.”

However, with 240 million people in the Americas yet to receive a single shot of COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination gaps “will keep our region at risk during future waves.”

While more than 685 million people in the region have completed their COVID vaccination schedules, and 50 countries and territories have already begun to deliver booster doses, we must now “redouble our efforts to ensure that our vulnerable populations receive the doses they need,” as soon as possible, Dr Etienne said.

The PAHO director also urged countries to keep testing capacity in place “so we do not go into this next wave blind,” and have the full picture of Omicron BA.2 in the region.

“This means making tests easily accessible for everyone everywhere, to prevent new outbreaks and to prepare our health systems if cases surge,” she added.

Dr Etienne also warned that some countries and territories have scaled back public health measures prematurely, highlighting that data “is our eyes and ears into this pandemic.”

“Just as we did before, we must adjust our strategies when cases rise, to save lives.”

With an increase in temperatures, air pollution and extreme weather events, “it is undeniable that climate change has presented significant threats to our region’s health,” the director said.

Health systems are also under threat as many hospitals were build in places vulnerable to floods, hurricanes, landslides and other extreme events.

“We are working to address this throughout the Region, but we all need to move faster,” added Dr Etienne. “Health system resilience is not just a necessity to overcome COVID, it is an investment for our future.”

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