PAHO director urges countries to address current health challenges
Carissa Etienne, the director of the Washington-based PAHO

WASHINGTON (CMC) – 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.

One of the challenges the PAHO director pointed out was the immunisation 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 real impact in reducing inequality, countries must continue in a spirit of solidary to address current challenges, including falling immunisation coverage.

She said across the board, vaccination rates for preventable diseases have either stalled or moved backwards and the region now sees the circulation of diseases 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 cooperation towards universal health in the region, since during COVID-19 “the world recognised just how central health is to our societies and to our economies.”

“For 120 years, the Americas have relied on cooperation because we’ve understood that our health, our security and our 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,” Dr Etienne continued.

One of the highlights of the conference, which ends on Friday, will be the election of a new PAHO director on Wednesday.

Haiti has named Dr Florence Duperval Guillaume, a former acting prime minister and former minister of public health and population, for the position. She is among six candidates with the others coming from Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay.

Meanwhile, a new initiative to facilitate the training of 500,000 public health professionals over the next five years, was presented at a side meeting aimed at addressing gaps in quality and competency in order to meet priority needs, particularly in primary health care.

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