PAHO urges regional countries to urgently invest in primary health care

The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne, on Wednesday told regional countries that urgent investment is key to improving health systems continuously weakened by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Chronic under-investment has made the Americas vulnerable to COVID-19,” Dr Etienne said, noting that with cases rising in some parts of the region following a two-month decline, it is vital that countries remain vigilant and prioritise public spending in heath so that no one is left behind.

“Few countries invest as much public spending in their health services as they should, leaving them prone to shortages in health personnel and essential supplies,” the Dominican-born PAHO official told reporters.

She said with the pandemic siphoning off financial and human resources, many countries have reported interruptions in vital areas, such as routine immunisation programmes, support for chronic conditions and mental and reproductive health services.

She said despite these disruptions, public investment in health has risen in many countries to ramp up ICU capacity, increase hospital services, and deploy COVID-19 vaccines. But these increases cannot be a short-term trend, the PAHO director added.

She told the weekly news briefing that all countries should increase public expenditures in their health systems to the recommended six per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP) or higher and should ensure that 30 per cent of this funding goes to first level care.

“Primary care, as you have heard us say over and over again, is the backbone of our health systems and more important than ever. It’s at the primary care level that COVID testing, contact tracking and tracing and immunisations take place.”

The PAHO director acknowledged that as economies remain strained, countries face difficult choices about how to spend limited funds.

“We cannot forget that health is an investment, not an expense. As we learned with COVID-19, health is at the core of vibrant societies. It keeps people working, kids in schools, companies productive and economies growing.”

She said with financial institutions making loans available and donors pledging support, there has never been a better time for countries to take advantage of these resources to maximise public investment in health.

Regarding the COVID-19 situation in the region, Dr Etienne said that in the past week countries reported 700,000 new COVID infections and 13,000 deaths.

Several countries, including parts of Colombia and Bolivia and the Southern Cone countries, are seeing upward trends after relaxing public health measures.

In the Caribbean, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico have reported a drop in new infections while cases are rising in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. High numbers of cases are also being seen in the Cayman Islands and Dominica.

Vaccination rates, however, continue to pick up pace, reaching an overall coverage of 48 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Dr Etienne said PAHO continues to work with manufacturers to secure additional doses and that the organisation has signed supply agreements with three manufacturers of WHO Emergency Use Listing (EUL) vaccines and is in final negotiations with a fourth supplier of mRNA vaccines.

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