As COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to decrease in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) says the inequity of vaccine access proves that vaccinations are working.
During PAHO’s weekly COVID-19 briefing yesterday, director Dr Carissa Etienne said last week’s data had showed that infection rates were decreasing in countries with higher vaccine coverage, while increasing in countries that had barely vaccinated their populations.
With reports that some countries have vaccines close to expiry, Etienne appealed to them to donate to countries in the region. She said unless all countries are protected, the world will not be safe against COVID-19.
“We face a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and the only way to stop it is to expand vaccinations. Vaccines are critical, even if no vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Just as important are the public health measures like physical distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowds and also infection control measures like testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation,” Etienne said.
She said the Americas reported a slight decrease in COVID-19 statistics from the previous week, with over 967,000 new cases and 22,000 deaths. While the decreasing trend seems good, Etienne said it shows a region divided by vaccine access.
For example, in Costa Rica, where one in three people are vaccinated, there is a steady decrease in COVID-19 cases. South American countries like Uruguay, Chile and Argentina are also reporting a steep decline in cases. The infection rate in Canada and most of the USA are also dropping. However, data shows that USA states that are reporting increases are those with lower vaccination rates.
Etienne said this demonstrates the importance of vaccinations in controlling the virus.
It is a contrasting picture in Latin America and the Caribbean, where only 15 per cent of the people are vaccinated. Low-income countries like Honduras and Haiti, which recently received donations from the USA, are yet to vaccinate 1 per cent of their populations, she said.
Cases are also accelerating in most Central American countries, with Guatemala reporting high infections and hospitalisations. In the Caribbean, cases are spiking in Cuba and Martinique had a tripling.
Etienne said the data clearly showed the need for more vaccines now. She said the USA government pledged to donate 12 million vaccine doses to the Caribbean and Latin American countries. So far, PAHO has helped deliver 4.5 million doses to El Salvador, Bolivia, Honduras and Haiti.
PAHO is also expecting more donations from the USA and Canada. Spain pledged to deliver 750,000 doses and France expressed willingness to support PAHO’s efforts. Vaccines are also reaching some countries through bilateral talks.
While commending those countries for sharing vaccines to the region, she said the reality is that it needs more. She said without vaccines, there is a greater risk of more people falling sick and dying.
So far, 47 countries and territories in the Americas have detected one variant of concern, and 11 have all four - Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Etienne warned that new variants will emerge as long as the SARS/COV2 virus continues to spread.
PAHO assistant director Dr Jarbas Barbosa said the COVAX Facility, with the assistance of PAHO’s Revolving Fund, delivered seven million doses to nine countries in the region and expects to ship another 3.7 million to other countries by late July.
While there is still vaccine hesitancy, Dr Jairo Méndez, PAHO regional advisor on Viral Diseases, said all the World Health Organisation-approved vaccines are effective against COVID-19 variants. He said while vaccines are not 100 per cent effective, people should note their success in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.