Antigua and Barbuda and other countries of America have been told that they need to strengthen their surveillance and routine vaccination campaigns, in light of reports of the polio virus among unvaccinated communities in the United States, more specifically in New York.
Director of the Pan American Health Organization Dr. Carissa Etienne said on Wednesday that although the United States has mounted a swift public health response following the detection, polio is a disease that she never expected to see in the region again.
“It’s been nearly 30 years since the Americas became the first global region to wipe out wild polio, but dwindling vaccination rates, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, have left many of our populations unprotected,” Dr. Etienne 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% in nearly all of South America, and 12 countries in the region are at High or Very High risk of experiencing an outbreak.
PAHO 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.
The PAHO Director also urged countries of the region to step up their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, particularly in the Caribbean, where several islands are falling behind.
“If we remain committed, we can keep COVID-19 under control,” she said. “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.”
This includes public health measures that must be promoted, particularly “in places where many remain unvaccinated, or where cases are climbing.”
Turning to the monkeypox outbreak in the region, the PAHO Director warned that cases are also on the rise in parts of the Americas and while deaths remain extremely rare, those with weakened immune systems are at risk of complications from monkeypox infection.
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.
Active engagement of affected communities is crucial, urged Dr. Etienne. Testing and contact tracing can also have a significant impact on reducing transmission.
As PAHO prepares to meet with Ministers of Health from across the region at the Pan American Sanitary Conference, Dr. Etienne highlighted the opportunity to discuss challenges towards ensuring health in the region and make agreements on how to move forward.
This landmark event is not only a chance to look back and learn from the past but also an “opportunity to look towards the future and our vision of a more equitable region, in which we work together to improve health for all,” she said.