COVID pandemic accelerating, WHO Americas office warns

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FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Porto Alegre

MEXICO CITY/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating, which is why equitable access to vaccines and effective preventive measures are crucial to helping turn the tide, the head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

"Our region is still under the grip of this pandemic ... in several countries of South America the pandemic in the first four months of this year was worse than what we faced in 2020," PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a briefing.

"This shows that we will only overcome this pandemic with a combination of rapid and equitable vaccine access and effective preventive measures. This pandemic is not only not over, it is accelerating," she added.

Over the past week more than 1.4 million people became infected with COVID-19 in the region and over 36,000 died from complications related to the disease, meaning that one in four coronavirus deaths reported worldwide last week were in the Americas.

Etienne pointed to Canada's infection rates, which surpassed U.S. figures for the first time since the start of the pandemic; surging cases across the Caribbean and Central America, underscoring the expectation of more hospitalizations in Costa Rica as the country reported a 50% jump in cases in the last week; and spiking infections across South America.

The PAHO director urged countries with extra vaccine doses to consider donating them to counties in need in the Americas, saying that considering the increased incidence of COVID-19 variants of concern, time was of the essence.

PAHO serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Mexico City and Lucila Sigal in Buenos AiresEditing by Matthew Lewis)