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Covid-19: WHO pleads for vaccines as South American countries register record deaths

BMJ 2021; 373 doi: (Published 18 June 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;373:n1587

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  1. Luke Taylor
  1. Plymouth, UK

Senior World Health Organization officials pleaded for more vaccine donations for Latin America on 16 June as several countries registered record covid-19 deaths.

“Fewer than one in 10 people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against covid, yet we are a region of more than 600 million people where cases are mounting, hospitals are full, and variants rapidly circulating,” said Carissa Etienne, director of WHO’s Latin American office, the Pan American Health organisation (PAHO). “Vaccines cannot come soon enough.”

The G7’s announcement this week that it will donate a billion doses of vaccines by next year1 was “fresh hope” for the region but Latin America must be prioritised owing to the extremity of its public health crisis, Etienne told PAHO’s weekly press briefing.

As the pandemic recedes in much of the world, Latin America has become the driver of global infections. Last week the region recorded nearly half of the world’s 10 200 daily covid-19 deaths.2

In Bolivia, Chile, and Uruguay, coronavirus cases are surging and hospitals are filling with younger patients aged 25-40 years old, Etienne said.

Bolivia, Colombia, and Paraguay all saw record covid-19 fatalities last week with 164, 652, and 149 daily deaths respectively.

Venezuela reported 1405 new covid-19 infections and 20 deaths on 18 June. Hospital data show that the actual figures are at least four times higher than those published by the authoritarian government, say public health experts and doctors.

“We are in the peak of the second wave right now and it has been 25% bigger and 40% longer than the first wave,” said Julio Castro, a Venezuelan doctor and expert in infectious diseases. Only 0.5% of Venezuelans have been fully vaccinated and 1.5% have received a single dose so far.

Urban populations

Silvain Aldhigheiri, PAHO’s covid-19 incident manager, told The BMJ that Latin America’s large, urban populations make it fertile ground for the virus “even when lockdowns are established by national authorities.” Until they reach herd immunity through vaccination they must “find the right balance between strict implementation of measures for lowering transmission and economic activities,” he said.

Argentina began a national lockdown on 22 May as infections exceeded 35 000 a day and intensive care wards reached record occupation rates. Only supermarkets and essential businesses remain open while schools and restaurants are closed. The lockdown was extended on 11 June for another two weeks with 23 780 new coronavirus cases recorded on 17 June.

In Colombia, the government has continued with its plan of economic reopening despite registering a record 652 daily covid-19 deaths on 10 June. Cinemas reopened on 15 June, following the return of large events like concerts at limited capacity on 3 June. More than 130 Colombian healthcare and science associations have called for a return to strict public health measures to bring down transmission or risk the health system’s collapse.

Despite Latin America being home to nine of the 10 countries with the highest daily covid-19 deaths per capita3 most governments are not responding with stricter public health measures like lockdowns.

Public trust depleted

Johnattan Garcia Ruiz, a visiting scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said that public trust in governments has been depleted as they have failed to secure enough vaccines and bring down infections after 15 months of intermittent lockdowns.

Diego Rosselli, an epidemiologist at Bogotá’s Javeriana University, said that models predict that daily infections in Colombia, which has been racked by civil unrest in recent months, will rise to over 30 000 and deaths to 800. “The government and society has decided there is just nothing more to do,” he said.

PAHO’s Etienne urged countries to tighten measures where transmission is high. “This is the most effective way to bring cases down until we have enough vaccines for everyone,” she said.

In the meantime, it is in the self-interest of richer nations to help speed up Latin America’s vaccination campaigns with donations, said Aldhigheiri. “No region of the world is protected from new peaks of transmission,” he said. “No country and no region will be safe until high vaccination coverage is reached.”

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