Barbados has eliminated several diseases from its landscape thanks to its 50-year relationship with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).
And this week, health care professionals and policy makers reflected on the country’s 50th anniversary as a member of the Washington-based PAHO.
In 1951, PAHO began its work in the Caribbean with technical support provided from the organization’s Venezuela office. Barbados applied for membership after independence in 1966. In April 1967, the island became a full member of the World Health Organization (WHO), and gained membership to PAHO in October of that year.
The Office of the Caribbean Programme Coordination was established in Barbados given the commonality of health problems in the sub-region, and in 2006, the Office of the Eastern Caribbean Countries was established in 2006 to increase PAHO’s presence in Barbados and the sub-region.
PAHO’s role in eliminating several diseases in the Americas cannot be overlooked. Addressing an awards ceremony this week, sub-regional programme coordinator for the Caribbean, Jessie Schutt-Aine Madkaud listed the elimination of smallpox as a major achievement.
The highly contagious disease, which was declared eradicated in May 1980, is one of the major milestone in international public health.
The Americas region was also the first to be declared free of Rubella transmission in 2015. The disease was responsible for Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), a series of birth defects, when contracted in the early stages of pregnancy.
“Before the widespread adoption of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine in the region’s national immunization programme, an estimated 16 000 to more than 20 000 children were born with CRS each year in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“With support from PAHO/WHO in its revolving fund for vaccine procurement, which helps countries procure vaccines at a lower cost, some 250 million adolescents and adults in 32 countries and territories were vaccinated against Rubella between 1998 and 2008.
“As a result of these efforts, the last endemic case of Rubella and CRS were reported in the Americas in 2009. The last endemic cases in Barbados of CRS and rubella was in 1997 and 1999 respectively,” she recalled.
Measles is the latest disease to be declared eliminated from the Americas in 2016, after more than 30 years of sustained vaccination.
PAHO director Dr Carissa Etienne lauded the work of the hemispheric body in helping to reduce vaccine preventable diseases, as well as cutting the infant mortality rate.
However, the top health official pointed to the latest threat to the health care system in the Caribbean – the effects of climate change.
She noted that PAHO’s relationship with the region must be strengthened given recent killer hurricanes Irma and Maria, which caused severe damage across the region.
“It is abundantly clear that from a climate change perspective, urgent attention must be given to the implementation and enforcement of adaptation policies such as appropriate land use, a revision of building codes where appropriate, retrofitting of buildings to improve hazard standards, including the construction of hurricane resistant housing, coastal and shoreline defence mechanisms, water management and new approaches to sustainable development,” she said.
“As has been discussed over and over again, from Texas and Florida to Dominica and everywhere else in between, we must consider what should be done differently and in advance, to better manage or overcome the negative impacts resulting from interruptions in communication, electricity and the availability of drinking water.
“It’s not okay in this 21st century that you can’t hear from a country for days after a disaster, and up to weeks after a disaster, the communication is so poor within the country and between the country and the world outside,” Etienne lamented.
She stressed that these issues must be tackled even as Barbados works to protect the gains made in public health.
“These things we must do while we address maternal mortality reduction as part of our unfinished Millennium Development Goals agenda. These things we must do while we continue to work towards achieving universal access to health and universal health coverage, ensuring strong, well-financed and resilient national health systems,” Etienne said.
The health specialist also lauded the contribution of one of her predecessors, Sir George Alleyne, who served as PAHO’s first director from the Caribbean from 1995 to 2003, and former Chief Medical Officer Dr Joy St John, who is now the assistant director general of the World Health Organisation with responsibility for climate and other determinants of health.
“I must tell you, you don’t become an assistant director general just like that. Very often these positions are held by members of the Security Council and the big countries . . . . And I was an assistant director general as well, so I know that this is a tremendous responsibility . . . . I will personally journey with her because you know, Caribbean people, we need to succeed at what we do if we need to put our Caribbean on the map. So, I feel a certain responsibility to ensure that our sister succeeds,” Etienne said.