Bridgetown, Barbados, 24 February 2022 (PAHO/WHO) - The Caribbean will be the focus of a new initiative aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake among healthcare workers and most at-risk populations. This collaborative effort by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Global Affairs Canada and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) promises to be a community driven, inclusive, culturally-responsive and evidence-informed approach to addressing vaccine hesitancy, in the face of pandemic fatigue, misinformation and the relaxation of pandemic protection protocols across the region.
“This project will apply good practice and draw on lessons learnt regarding communications and engagement in pandemics to address vaccine hesitancy,” Director, Projects Department at the CDB, Mr. Daniel Best said. “Capacity building of health care workers, leaders and influencers to deliver compelling, evidence-based communication on the COVID-19 vaccine, could aid efforts to increase uptake,” he further explained.
The CDB and Global Affairs Canada are two of the most recent international partners who have joined forces with PAHO to develop, fund and mobilize resources to promote the uptake of and access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Caribbean region. PAHO’s ongoing collaborative interventions with Ministries of health, Civil Society Organisations, partners, and donors have successfully reached 63% of the eligible public with lifesaving COVID vaccines. However, vaccine coverages in Caribbean countries and territories vary widely, from 1-90%. In fact, out of 13 countries and territories in the Americas, 10 did not yet reach the WHO’s goal of 40% immunization coverage by the end of 2021. Consequently, the Caribbean is especially vulnerable to ongoing COVID-19 transmission.
“This event marks a pivotal milestone in the successful implementation of the communications intervention. We are at a critical juncture in the region in the fight against COVID as all restrictions are being removed and as all economies are reopening a communications framework that considers the socio cultural, economic and psychological factors of the region must be implemented. This project that we are signing today reflects these features and I think bodes well for the achievement of our outcomes,” Division Chief, Social Sector Division CDB, Ms. Deidre Clarendon, reiterated.
She commented that combatting hesitancy is critical, particularly with the presence of the more transmissible Omicron COVID-19 variant, given the link between vaccine uptake and the reduction of the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death resulting from COVID-19. Her remarks are further justified through findings of a recent study by PAHO and UNICEF, which indicated that 51% of vaccine hesitant people in the Eastern Caribbean were open to changing their minds after seeing more scientific and medical information.
“Vaccines are one of humanity’s most powerful tools and have been around since the 1800s. They are instrumental in preventing and reducing the burden of diseases like polio, measles, tetanus and now – COVID-19. Addressing vaccine hesitancy at this stage of the pandemic is crucial. As such, Canada is proud to support this risk communication and community engagement for COVID-19 vaccine uptake in the Caribbean project in partnership with PAHO and the Caribbean Development Bank,” Ms. Jennifer Heys, Head of Cooperation, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Global Affairs Canada stated.
Last year, Canada announced a contribution of $50 million to PAHO in support of its critical work towards readiness and access to COVID-19 vaccines for vulnerable populations. This contribution also includes targeted support of at least $6M to the Caribbean, given the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on small island developing states. This is complemented by another $4.2M initiative with PAHO which has been working to support disaster preparedness in the health sector for Caribbean countries, as well as providing funding to combat COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
Mr. Dean Chambliss, Sub Regional Program Director, PAHO referred to misinformation as one of the reasons why vaccine uptake has been reduced in the Region. He expressed further concern about low levels of risk perception, as observably, some people no longer see COVID-19 as a risk. “All phases of this pandemic have been difficult, but we find ourselves at an interesting juncture –we have a situation not just in the Caribbean, but the broader Americas – where the general public and indeed healthcare workers are tired of the pandemic, and they feel like it’s time to move on” Mr Chambliss said. “At the same time, for any vaccine-preventable disease, you have to have a level of vaccination coverage in the general population that allows us to truly make that move – to be able to live with the disease on an ongoing basis” he added.
In closing, Mr. Chambliss additionally offered that dialogue, trust-building and outreach are key tools that must be engaged to promote vaccine uptake and ultimately save lives. Launched on February 24th, 2022, the collaborative initiative with the CDB, Global Affairs Canada and PAHO will be designed to do just that.
Combined with evidence-informed knowledge alongside culturally relevant and current understandings about perceptions of COVID-19 vaccines, this project is timely as our Region aims to healthfully return to a state of post pandemic normalcy. This initiative will be rolled out within the next few months and implemented until the end of 2022.
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About the Pan American Health Organisation
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) works with the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of its population. Founded in 1902, it is the world’s oldest international public health agency. It serves as the Regional Office of WHO for the Americas and is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American system.
The PAHO Subregional Program is responsible for providing subregional technical cooperation and to strengthen PAHO’s engagement with the Caribbean Subregional integration mechanisms, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and its various bodies and organs; and to build synergistic partnerships with the subregional institutions such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) and the University of the West Indies (UWI), among others. PAHO’s subregional technical cooperation specifically focuses on public health issues which would benefit from economies of scale and for which agreement on proposed collective responses and actions would produce a far greater impact rather than individual country responses. The Subregional Program also plays a role in coordinating among the different PAHO country offices.