DR CARISSA F. ETIENNE, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). (Image: PAHO)


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Those with underlying conditions can heap the number of COVID-19 cases and as a result every effort must be taken to protect this group most vulnerable in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

This was the reasoning of Pan American Health Organisation’s (PAHO) director, Carissa Etienne, as she spoke yesterday during a live virtual press briefing streamed from its headquarters in Washington, on PAHO’s response to the pandemic and the evolving situation of the virus in the Americas.

Etienne said care was to be intensified amongst this group as more than 2.4 million cases and over 143,000 deaths have made the Americas the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are particularly concerned that the number of new cases reported last week in Brazil was the highest for a seven-day period, since the outbreak began. Both Peru and Chile are also reporting a high incidence,” said Etienne.

Pre-COVID-19, research revealed 81 percent of all deaths in the region of the Americas resulted from NCDs. Thirty-nine per cent of these premature deaths occurred in age groups beneath 70.

She warned for most countries in the Americas, now was not the time to relax restrictions or scale back preventive strategies rather it was time to stay strong, remain vigilant and aggressively implement proven public health measures.

In her delivery she revealed persons with diabetes were twice as likely to have severe disease or die, while 28 per cent of cancer patients who contracted COVID-19 died, compared with 2 percent of overall patients.

She added smoking also increased the chance of severe disease from COVID-19.

“We have never seen such a deadly relationship between an infectious disease and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). Some of the data are truly alarming, especially for our region, where NCDs are pervasive,” Etienne said.

She continued, “We need aggressive preventive measures to protect people with diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from the new coronavirus.”

It was even a more worrying issue about this group according to Etienne as with the fear and social readjustments forced by COVID-19, such as stay at home measures and disruption in health services many have not been visiting clinics as well as access to renal dialysis, cancer care and critical treatment for NCDs patients have been lowered as in some instances many health workers who normally provide care for people with chronic disease have been redirected to the COVID-19 response, adversely impacting the timely diagnosis and treatment of NCDs.

Etienne said it was the responsibility of countries to find a way to ensure that supply chains for essential NCD medicines were protected and continued to function efficiently, with the main focus being getting them to the people in dire need of them.

Speaking on improvised methods in ensuring care is met for NCD patients, Etienne pointed to the role of telemedicine many countries have been utilising to arrange and keep patient and doctor appointments.

“PAHO is working with countries in the region and providing guidance to help plan and implement these measures. As cases continue to rise in our region, our efforts to protect those with underlying conditions must intensify.” she reiterated.