WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Wednesday called for increased vaccination and public health measures to ensure the best possible protection against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
PAHO director, Dr Carissa Etienne, said while experts work to better understand the new Wold Health Organization (WHO)-designated “variant of concern”, there was no need for panic among the various populations in the Americas.
She told the weekly PAHO media conference that there are still many unknowns and studies will take some time to complete and until then “it is not clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease”.
PAHO said that in the Americas, which reported 753,000 new COVID infections and over 13,000 deaths over the past week, Omicron has so far been detected in Canada and Brazil.
“But it is likely that other countries will begin seeing this new variant in circulation soon,” the director said, noting that while PAHO continues to track all variants in the region, for now Delta remains the predominant variant in the Americas.
Dr Etienne said with just over half of population in Latin America and the Caribbean fully vaccinated against COVID-19, “our region remains especially vulnerable,” adding “vaccine inequity is prolonging the COVID crisis, and this is exactly what we’re seeing with the arrival of Omicron”.
The Dominican-born PAHO director called on governments to sustain public health measures, such as mask wearing, and redouble their surveillance efforts, noting “the more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and change”.
She reminded reporters that “COVID is not the first infectious disease that has shaken the world,” as she turned her attention to the commemoration of World AIDS Day being observed globally on December 1 every year.
PAHO said that prior to the pandemic, just 65 per cent of people living with HIV in the region were receiving ARV therapy and as the pandemic progressed, interruptions increased four-fold, leaving millions at risk.
Dr Etienne said as there are effective drugs that control the disease and interrupt transmission, “we must ensure consistent and equitable access to these powerful tools”.
The director noted that 2.4 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean live with HIV.
PAHO is this week observing its 119th anniversary and Dr Etienne highlighted the progress that has been made in public health in the Americas – in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and in the development of effective vaccines against COVID.
“We must work together to finish the job… (so that) everyone in our region has access to the services and tools they need to live healthy and productive lives.”
Over the past week, COVID-19 cases have remained steady but high in the US and Canada and have dropped in Mexico. Reductions have also been seen in most countries in Central America.
Meanwhile, cases have increased steadily in Southern Cone countries and have accelerated in the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands, and in Anguilla, PAHO added.