North and Latin America remain under the “tight grip” of Covid-19, with the fallout from the pandemic threatening to undo years of development gains in a matter of months, the region’s top health expert has warned.
Speaking at a virtual briefing on Tuesday, Dr Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said that the Americas has now reported more than 9.7 million cases and some 365,000 deaths - roughly half of the global total.
She said that nearly every country in central America is “witnessing spikes in Covid-19 cases”, while south America is facing a “public health paradox” amid mounting pressure to reopen economies and schools, despite “clear signs” that rapid transmission is continuing.
Dr Etienne added that the pandemic has also demonstrated that health systems have been chronically underfunded, with many in the region unable to access care.
“But the pandemic is not the only health issue we face - we are beginning to see warning signs of the devastating impact on other diseases,” she said, suggesting that services for chronic conditions including diabetes and infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis have been a “severely disrupted or, worse yet, halted entirely.”
There are also issues around supplying vital drugs, with 11 countries set to run out of antiretrovirals for HIV within three months.
“Today the Americas are at risk of losing years of health gains in a matter of months,” Dr Etienne said.
The warning comes amid concerns from aid groups that the Caribbean, where countries have largely contained the virus so far, could be “hit simultaneously by two disasters” as hurricane season begins.
At the weekend roughly 5,000 people in the Dominican Republic were evacuated as Tropical Storm Isaias approached, while Tropical Storm Amanda killed at least 33 people and forced thousands more from their homes in central America in late May.
Such events are likely to be frequent this year as a busier than normal Atlantic Ocean hurricane season has been predicted. Forecasters at Colorado State University in the US suggest that four of the 16 predicted storms this year are showing signs of becoming major hurricanes - in part due to warming surface water temperatures linked to climate change.
Unicef warned yesterday that the coronavirus could “spread easily in crowded emergency shelters” where social distancing would be difficult.
“In the coming days and weeks, children and families will be at risk of being hit simultaneously by two disasters, Covid-19 and hurricanes," Bernt Aasen, Unicef's regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said. “This is the perfect storm we fear for the Caribbean and Central America.”
The agency urged countries to adapt storm shelters to enable social distancing and stock up on crucial supplies now.
Speaking at the PAHO briefing Dr Sylvain Aldighieri, deputy director of health emergencies for the regional office, added that hurricanes and tropical storms could add “a new layer of complexity” to the Covid-19 public health response.
He said that shelters, in particular, are a “big concern” due to challenges implementing social distancing, hand hygiene and face masks.
“We have developed and shared guidelines for management of this kind of situation for our member states and national authorities dealing with hurricanes,” Dr Aldighieri said. “Another concern is how hurricanes will disrupt the care of patients in health facilities, including critical patients that require intensive care and oxygen therapy.”
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