WASHINGTON– The outgoing Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, has acknowledged the significant gains in health in the last decade but urged countries to address current challenges, including immunization gaps that have “rolled back nearly three decades of progress on childhood vaccinations in recent years.
“Over the last decade, I’ve seen countries translate the idea of universal health care into practical policies,” the Dominican-born Dr. Etienne said, citing how local, regional, and national governments are working together to achieve “our shared agenda for health in the Americas and the Sustainable Development goals.”
She told the ongoing 30th Pan American Sanitary Conference that PAHO was able to expand technical cooperation to increase health system resilience and disaster preparedness, which “proved instrumental in our responses to Zika, COVID, and Monkeypox.”
Dr. Etienne said while collaboration has had a real impact in reducing inequality, countries must continue in a spirit of solidary to address current challenges, including falling immunization coverage.
She said that vaccination rates for preventable diseases have either stalled or moved backward, the PAHO Director said, and the region now sees the circulation of conditions that “we had either already eliminated or were once on the verge of surpassing.”
The PAHO director urged countries to reverse these trends with “unwavering resolve,” as “other diseases like diphtheria and yellow fever are just one outbreak away from becoming regional emergencies.”
She also called for greater regional cooperation toward universal health since, during COVID-19, “the world recognized just how central health is to our societies and economies.”
“For 120 years, the Americas have relied on cooperation because we’ve understood that our health, security, and prosperity are interdependent,” the Director said, referring to PAHO’s creation in 1902 to address a yellow fever emergency.
“As we turn to the task of rebuilding from this pandemic, we must do more to improve the health of our people by working in partnership.
“I hope that ten years from now, we can look at our region as one,” Dr. Etienne said, where countries recognize the ties that link the health of people, planet, and animals, and where “digital technologies enhance disease monitoring, improve the patient experience and encourage informed decision-making in all of our member states.”
One of the highlights of the conference, which ends on Friday, will be the election of a new PAHO director on Wednesday.
For the position, Haiti has named Dr. Florence Duperval Guillaume, a former acting prime minister and minister of public health and population. She is among six candidates, with the others coming from Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay.
Meanwhile, a new initiative to facilitate the training 500,000 public health professionals over the next five years was presented at a side meeting to address gaps in quality and competency to meet priority needs, particularly in primary health care.
The initiative, Americas Health Corps (AHC), was presented to ministers of health and other health leaders by Dr. Etienne and the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra.
Chronic underinvestment and the sustained fragmentation of health systems in the Americas have led to a deficit of between 600,000 and two million healthcare workers, an issue compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without a health workforce that is adaptable, trained, and fit for purpose, the Region of the Americas will remain highly vulnerable to the impact of public health emergencies,” Dr. Etienne said.
Americas Health Corps aims to address this challenge by increasing the availability of well-trained and qualified health workers, building future leaders in health governance and public administration, and ensuring private sector engagement in supporting the development of health workers.
It will also use PAHO’s Virtual Campus to expand digital learning for public health in the Americas and support the creation of a consortium of academic centers in public health.
Americas Health Corps will constitute “a strong and capable health workforce familiar with the entire region and can be deployed to countries in times of crisis without encountering the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles that slowed down the response when we saw COVID-19,” Becerra said.
The initiative will also facilitate the implementation of the Action Plan on Health and Resilience in the Americas, which was adopted at the IX Summit of the Americas in June 2022. This plan aims to expand equitable access to quality health services, strengthen training and education, increase public financing for health, improve emergency preparedness and accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.