St John’s, Antigua, 9 December 2022 (PAHO/WHO) - Immunization Mangers from across the Caribbean met in Antigua and Barbuda from December 5-8, under the theme, “Recovering Past Gains” to reflect on the challenges of 2021, to strategize and develop plans to regain their position as a global leader in immunization.
Professor Peter Figueroa, Chair of the Caribbean Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (CiTAG), commended the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) managers for their dedication and commitment over the last two years, but acknowledged significant setbacks in relation to routine childhood immunization.
“COVID-19 disrupted our EPI programs. There is no question about it - but we have to recover, and we also need to reflect carefully that over the past decade the EPI coverage in the Americas has been slipping. So, we need to try to better understand why. And even in the Caribbean where historically we have sustained high levels of vaccine coverage among children, we were having slippage of vaccine coverage and surveillance indicators prior to COVID. And then COVID really hit us hard. So, we have to recover our past gains and focus on the essentials of the EPI programme. This means we must work systematically to achieve 95% in all districts of DPT3 (combined diphtheria, tetanus toxoid and pertussis vaccine) and MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) 1&2. This is really the number one priority,” he stressed.
Dr. Daniel Salas, Chief of the Comprehensive Family Immunization Unit of the Department of Family, Health Promotion and Life Course (FPL/IM) of the Pan American Health Organization World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) emphasized the importance of the meeting to understand the challenges and plan a response.
“We are facing a backslide in regular program coverage that we have not seen in the last decade. So, it is very important for us to question ourselves. How can we reinvigorate immunization as a public good for universal health? This region has been a leader in the world but right now we are second to the last spot in the regions of the WHO. We have the health of the people in our hands. We have the future of many children in our hands that live here in Antigua, that live here in the Caribbean. It is a very serious situation. We really have to push ourselves to go beyond to reach who we haven’t reached before,” he emphasized.
During the brief opening ceremony, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health, Wellness and Environment, in Antigua and Barbuda, Dr. Teri-Ann Joseph challenged the participants to find creative ways to solve issues and get results. “We have used the slogan for years, Vaccines Save Lives. We said it. We believed it. We saw that COVID-19 vaccines saved lives, but we have also seen that despite this people became more apprehensive… How do we get people to trust us again? How do we get people to trust the process again?” she asked.
The meeting commenced with an ‘Effective Communication for Vaccine Uptake for Caribbean EPI Managers’ workshop which included practical spokesperson and media training, risk communication and community engagement, using social media and dealing with vaccine deniers in public settings. The next three days were devoted to the 36th EPI Managers Meeting which included a review of the status and needs of country EPI programs following the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, sustaining the elimination of measles, rubella/congenital rubella syndrome and polio as well as an evaluation of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Other representatives at the EPI Managers meeting included Advisors from the PAHO Immunization Unit, the Revolving Fund, the CARICOM Secretariat, CiTAG and the Caribbean Public Health Agency.
At the end of the meeting the Henry C Smith award for most improved immunization coverage in 2021 went to the Cayman Islands. The first, second and third place awards for vaccine preventable disease surveillance went to Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana, respectively. Three EPI managers who passed away in 2021 and 2022 were also recognized. They are, Ms. Eulynis Brown (St. Kitts & Nevis), Mrs. Gwendolyn Loobie-Snaggs (Trinidad & Tobago) and Mrs. Patricia Morris-Caruth (St. Vincent & the Grenadines).
Caribbean EPI meetings are held annually and have been held since the 1980’s. During the pandemic, two virtual meetings were held.