Washington – The director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne, Wednesday called on countries in the Americas, including the Caribbean, to exercise additional vigilance as the influenza and hurricane seasons begin amidst a rise in the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the region.
The Dominican-born PAHO senior official said that over the past week, countries in the region have reported a 10.4 per cent jump in cases of COVID-19, and a 14 per cent increase in deaths, boding a “double threat of a potential influenza surge alongside a rise in COVID-19 cases”.
She said influenza cases have been exceptionally low since COVID-19 began over two years ago, but things have started to change.
“The flu virus is circulating again and not just during traditional flu season,” she told the weekly news conference.
PAHO reported that Mexico and Peru have seen higher numbers of influenza cases than expected and Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have reported more hospitalisations than usual due to influenza.
Cases of respiratory virus in Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic have also spiked among young children.
Etienne said that while most countries have integrated COVID-19 surveillance with efforts to track the influenza virus, they must build on that capacity “to quickly identify the different respiratory viruses circulating in the Americas”.
The PAHO director also urged people to ensure they are up to date with the flu vaccine as this reflects the strains circulating now and can provide better protection to all at risk.
Influenza vaccination campaigns are important every year but even more so this year “as we are facing multiple risks at the same time”, she said, noting that while the upcoming influenza season will primarily affect those countries in the southern hemisphere, countries in Central America and the Caribbean must prepare for hurricane season.
“It only takes one massive storm to destroy people’s livelihoods, cripple our health systems and lead to countless lives lost,” the PAHO Director said.
She added that with climate change leading to a rise in the frequency and impact of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods, “we must prepare early so we are not caught off guard”.
Dr. Etienne said while many countries already have national plans for extreme weather events, she is urging them to ensure that these plans are up to date.
“Countries should have a detailed understanding of their risk areas, and the likely populations and health facilities which could be affected,” she said.
PAHO said it will continue to support countries to assess risks and address vulnerabilities ahead of time. PAHO’s SMART hospitals programme, which focuses on the renovation of health centers in areas vulnerable to natural disasters has also been applied across the region, helping countries withstand volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and the pandemic.
“Our wellbeing and that of our societies depend on the resilience of our health systems. This is an important lesson from COVID-19 that we cannot ignore,” she said.
The issue is expected to be further addressed during the ninth Summit of the Americas getting underway in the United States on June 6.
Etienne said that the region’s health systems, which are still recovering from the disruptions brought by the pandemic, are not only facing a surge in COVID-19 cases, but are being further tested by the spike in current public health events, including Monkeypox, viral hepatitis and other respiratory infections,.
She said urgent investment in health is therefore “essential to secure everything that we hope for the future of our region: resilience and security, economic prosperity, and the wellbeing of our people”.
Turning to the COVID-19 situation in the region, the PAHO director reported that all sub regions except the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean Islands have seen increases in both cases and deaths – with COVID-19 cases in South America rising by 43.1 per cent and deaths by 21.3 per cent in Central America. (CMC)