Recent disasters and epidemics show need for enhanced preparedness in countries of the Americas

Washington, 25 September 2017 (PAHO/WHO)-The hurricanes that devastated parts of the Caribbean and the earthquakes that caused deaths in Mexico took center stage today at the opening of a regional meeting of health ministers, the 29th Pan American Sanitary Conference.

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F. Etienne spoke to ministers of affected countries, extending "heartfelt condolences on the occasion of the deaths and injuries, the utter devastation and destruction, the extensive dislocation and the psychological trauma resulting from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria." She also addressed the people of Mexico, adding, "we extend our deepest commiserations regarding the tremendous loss of lives and the extensive damage resulting from two powerful earthquakes that struck your country."

Dr. Etienne told the health ministers, "We commit to working with you all to ensure the speedy re-establishment and effective functioning of your health systems. The economic losses resulting from these disasters, including their direct physical impacts, will be astronomical. Reconstruction will be long and difficult for all affected, but particularly so for the Small Island Developing States, for the poor and for persons living under conditions of vulnerability."

The new Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, echoed those concerns in his keynote address to the health ministers, saying, "These hurricanes are a tragic reminder that our world's climate is changing, with devastating consequences for human health. It is a timely reminder, if we needed one, that we must take action both to mitigate and to adapt to the health effects of climate change." He said WHO was dedicating special efforts in this regard to supporting "small island developing states, who are the least responsible for climate change, but the most at-risk."

Dr. Thomas E. Price, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, also referred to the disasters in his welcoming remarks, noting, "Our prayers go out for continued recovery from the recent hurricanes and earthquakes that have struck Mexico and the Caribbean. We know that countries and peoples in the region have suffered greatly over the last couple of weeks.  We had the chance to see some of the storms' devastation in Texas and Florida firsthand. It is heartbreaking, and a crucial reminder of the importance of investing in public health preparedness and response." 

Price added, "We must be prepared not just for hurricanes and earthquakes, however. We must also be prepared for biological threats as well."

Recalling the devastation of Ebola in West Africa, he said, "Infectious diseases do not respect boundaries between countries - as the people of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone certainly appreciate and as we all know well. And, as we have seen in our own hemisphere with Zika, they can spread rapidly through international travel, to imperil the health, security, and prosperity of people across whole regions of the globe."

Price also noted, "There is a great disparity of preparedness among countries that must be addressed: the human cost of disease outbreaks can escalate so rapidly, so unnecessarily, when countries do not have capacity to respond." He told the ministers, "Global health security is at the top of my agenda," adding, "PAHO has an important role to play in global health security, and we look forward to HHS working with PAHO and all member states on these efforts."

Etienne called for a strong focus in public health policy and action on increasing health equity. "We must collectively recognize the need for a greater focus on human well-being and in ensuring that economic growth delivers progress for all. Our policy choices must be informed by an assessment of their impacts on populations living in conditions of vulnerability and on the different dimensions of well-being as well as their distributional consequences."

Etienne also pointed to the need for more focus on climate change and its impact on health. "We must all cooperate to reduce those factors that are contributing to climate change and to mitigate its health effects," she said, adding that new policies and actions were needed in such areas as land use, building codes, hurricane-resistant housing, coastal and shoreline protection, and water management, as well as "new approaches to sustainable development."   

Ministers of health from throughout the Americas are meeting this week at PAHO to discuss public health policies, address health challenges, and guide the organization's technical cooperation in each country.

The Pan American Sanitary Conference is the supreme authority of PAHO and meets every five years to determine its policies and priorities. It also acts as a forum for the exchange of information and ideas on disease prevention; the preservation, promotion and recovery of physical and mental health; and health promotion.


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