PAHO: Act now to slow virus or face damning effect


PAHO: Act now to slow virus or face damning effect

Senior staff reporter

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

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DIRECTOR of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Carissa Etienne, while warning that the COVID-19 pandemic in the Americas “is going to escalate and get worse before it gets better”, says countries must “act now” to slow the spread of the virus or face the damning effect on their health systems.

“There are steps that every country can take to slow the spread of the virus, to reduce the impact on its health systems and to save lives — but only if we act now. What we do today will determine the capacity of our health systems to save lives tomorrow,” Dr Etienne told a digital press briefing convened yesterday to provide an update on the pandemic from PAHO's Washington, DC offices in the United States.

The PAHO director said countries must make domestic investments now to strengthen their health systems and services, and build resilient health systems that have the capacity to “detect, respond and research capacity to address the threat while, at the same time, ensuring the provision of health services for all those that need them”.

“I cannot emphasise enough that countries must take urgent action to prepare hospitals and health facilities for what is coming — an influx of COVID-19 patients that will need hospital space, beds, health professionals and medical equipment. Governments at the national and local levels should organise health systems based on the assumption that their areas will be affected,” Dr Etienne said.

“This virus has not and will not be stopped by borders drawn on maps. Countries need to protect their health personnel as never before. They must be trained on how to avoid infection, have access to adequate supplies of protective equipment for the long haul; and it is also our duty to protect them and care for them as they will be on the front line of this battle,” the PAHO director general stressed.

In the meantime, she emphasised that countries also need to decide what social distancing measures they need to implement and how, and for how long.

“These include cancellation of mass gatherings, school and business closures, teleworking and voluntary or legally mandated stay-at-home measures. Such measures might seem drastic but they are the only way to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by too many sick people in too short a period of time. Measures should be implemented as soon as possible after a determination of the transmission scenario,” she told the briefing.

“The truth is, unless we ensure that social distancing is effective some of our health systems and services will be overwhelmed and that's why social distancing is so important,” Dr Etienne noted.

The PAHO director general said that based on the experience of countries in regions other than the Americas, it seems prudent for all states to plan for the implementation of measures for at least two to three months.

“Without solid evidence on effective treatments and no available vaccine at hand, social distancing and other aggressive preventative measures remain our best bet to prevent the most severe consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in our region. This moment demands bold and compassionate leadership,” she told the briefing.

“It will not be easy, and we know we will be asking people to adapt to an extraordinary situation that is impacting everything in their lives but let me emphasise [that] this pandemic is serious and we need to do everything in our power to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our peoples, and the best time to do this is now before hospitals and health workers get overwhelmed,” she added.

The PAHO director general, in the meantime, said it was not all doom and gloom as the region has some things in its favour.

“We have each other. Although many of us are spending time apart to protect ourselves and others, we are connected like never before. We share the same challenge and we also will share the solutions. What happens in the coming weeks will highly depend on our joint efforts in working and acting togethe, even if physically apart. Solidarity in our region has never had deeper meaning than it does today. The only way out of this situation will be if everyone does his or her part in supporting others,” she noted.

She said PAHO's experience in tackling threats is also another reason for the region to have hope.

“We have faced threats before. PAHO has been working with the people and countries of the Americas to fight deadly diseases and to control outbreaks for almost 120 years. Our region has been polio-free for 25 years. We were a leader in eradicating small pox and we are making steady progress towards eliminating malaria. I believe we can stand up to COVID-19,” Dr Etienne stated.

“Over the last 40 years many of our member countries have developed health systems and a health workforce that is prepared to deal with serious challenges, even in a context of inequality and limited resources. The importance of strong and resilient systems based on primary health care has never been more evident,” she added.

In admitting that COVID-19 “will put our health systems and services to the ultimate test”, she said PAHO was already hard at work with governments across the region to strengthen its public health response.

“All PAHO's country offices are supporting member states to plan, prepare and respond to COVID-19 — working around the clock with national health staff. Additionally, PAHO has scaled up capacity building to ensure that countries can quickly use the resources available to respond to this outbreak.

“Last week we convened the national regulatory authorities to discuss how we could better leverage information and resources to ensure the safety and quality of medical products, especially test kits,” she said.

In the region of the Americas, as of March 30, there have been more than 163,000 confirmed cases and 2,836 people have lost their lives to COVID-19.

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