The director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dr. Carissa Etienne, has warned that while the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to kill an estimated 4,000 lives weekly in the Americas and monkeypox cases rise, the polio virus has now been detected among unvaccinated communities in New York.
As a result, the Dominica-born PAHO official is calling on countries, including those in the Caribbean, to urgently strengthen surveillance and routine vaccination campaigns.
Dr. Etienne told reporters that although the United States has mounted a swift public health response following the detection, polio is a disease that “I never expected to see in our region again.
“It’s been nearly 30 years since the Americas became the first global region to wipe out wild polio,” she said, noting, however, that “dwindling vaccination rates, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left many of our populations unprotected.”
PAHO said polio, which can spread quickly among communities with insufficient vaccination coverage, is not a treatable disease but is fully preventable with vaccines. Yet today, vaccination coverage has fallen below 80 percent in nearly all of South America, and 12 countries in the region are at high or very high risk of experiencing an outbreak.
PAHO said it has been working closely with the United States and has issued several alerts to the member states to remain vigilant and take measures to proactively reach unvaccinated populations with a polio vaccine.
“We must not take the lifesaving power of vaccines for granted,” said Dr. Etienne, urging countries of the region to step up their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, particularly in the Caribbean, where a number of islands are falling behind.
“If we remain committed, we can keep COVID-19 under control. Not by ignoring it but by continuing to make use of the many tools we have at our disposal to trace and, most importantly, prevent infections.”
She said this includes public health measures that must be promoted, particularly “in places where many remain unvaccinated, or where cases are climbing.”
Regarding the monkeypox outbreak in the region, the PAHO director warned that cases are also increasing in parts of the Americas and while deaths remain extremely rare, those with weakened immune systems are at risk of complications from monkeypox infection.
She said PAHO has been working on the expansion of testing capacity in the region, but countries must “act now to control the spread,” particularly while vaccine supplies remain limited.
Dr. Carissa Etienne said active engagement of affected communities is crucial. Testing and contact tracing can also have a significant impact on reducing transmission.