By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
THE Haitian government will now be accepting the COVAX-generated Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with the hope of curbing the fast-spreading COVID-19 virus in that country, Pan American Health Organization officials said yesterday.
PAHO’s director, Dr Carissa Etienne, has in the past expressed concern over Haiti’s reluctance in putting an urgency on vaccinating its population.
She made the announcement about Haiti during PAHO’s weekly webinar.
“I am particularly concerned about the situation in Haiti, where sources are reporting sharp increases in cases, hospitalisations and deaths in recent weeks,” she said.
“Although official data are limited, the risks are high as the Haitian health system is already challenged by a sharp rise in cases, especially as the number of COVID-19 hospital beds has been downsized from last year.”
As if the spread was not bad enough, two COVID-19 variants have been identified in Haiti which officials say are no doubt accelerating the spread of the virus there.
The Bahamas still has a ban against travel to and from Haiti because of the high rates of the COVID-19 virus there.
“Two variants of concern have already been identified in the country, while public health measures required to stop transmission are being largely ignored by the general population,” Dr Etienne said. “These two factors combined are likely fuelling transmission.
“PAHO is working with the Ministry of Health to scale up care and supplies for infected patients as well as protective equipment so health care workers can do their jobs safely.
“It’s encouraging that the government of Haiti will accept the AstraZeneca vaccine and doses will be arriving soon through the COVAX Facility. PAHO will continue to work with the Ministry of Health to prepare and support the delivery of the first doses as quickly as possible. A very high priority is to offer vaccination to all frontline health workers over 18 years of age.”
She also said PAHO will work with the Haitian government to ramp up COVID testing in an attempt to flatten the curve.
“Another top priority in our collaboration with the Haitian government is to reduce the transmission of this virus by scaling up testing so the government can identify and isolate cases, and quarantine those who’ve come in contact with infected persons,” Dr Etienne said.
“We call on partners and organisations working in Haiti to urgently reinforce the response to COVID-19. The country will need additional health capacity, as well as support to embrace preventive measures required to curb transmission. Both will be decisive in the coming weeks. There is no time to waste.”
Looking ahead, Dr Etienne noted that the situation seen now in Haiti is a cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus.
She said this is true for most places in the region.
Shifting gears to the region in general, Dr Etienne said vaccinations are key to the fight against COVID at this time.
“Since the start of the New Year, we’ve seen a rapid increase in infections. In just the first five months of 2021 both cases and deaths have almost doubled in our region,” she said. “Wishful thinking will not resolve this crisis. We need action. So let me remind you of what needs to be done to stop this outbreak.
“The first thing is effective leadership. This pandemic has taught us time and again that leadership determines the effectiveness of a country’s response. Sadly, across our region we’ve seen misinformation about COVID-19 sow doubt on proven health measures, often in the context of political disputes.
“By stoking controversy where there is none, our leaders are sending mixed messages to the public and standing in the way of effective measures to control the virus. We must unite around stopping this virus – this should be the priority. The second is to urgently boost access to vaccines.
“Effective vaccines are a beacon of hope in this crisis, and we must do all in our power to secure more doses for all nations in the Americas.”
According to Dr Etienne, although COVAX has already delivered 17.6 million vaccine doses to the region, progress is not keeping up with the pandemic. She said PAHO is very far from this goal, especially for the low-income countries that are still struggling to protect health professionals and those more vulnerable.
“Regional solidarity, including the donation of doses, will be key to get us through the current shortage of supply,” she said.
“Vaccines will save lives now and prevent future waves, but for the current surge in infections we have to deploy the tools we have at hand.
“Let me remind you that public health measures remain the best way to save lives now.”
Over the last week there were 1.1 million new cases of COVID-19 in the region and over 25,000 COVID-19 related deaths reported.
Here at home, 29 new cases were recorded on Tuesday, bringing the nation’s total to 11,893. There have been 230 deaths with one new death under investigation.