• By Diana G Mendoza

WHO advises Pacific Islands to remain vigilant amid Covid-19


Manila-- “Seize this moment.” Dr. Takeshi Kasai, regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Regional Office, gave this statement as both a caution and advice to Pacific island countries that have remained Covid-free to use this opportunity to be vigilant to maintain their health status.

In a virtual press conference, Kasai asked Pacific island countries to immediately address the high incidence of noncommunicable or lifestyle diseases as people with these conditions are at huge risk of contracting the coronavirus. He also said many small island countries in the region are vulnerable because of difficult living conditions and limited health care capacities.

“No country is safe,” said Kasai. “The Pacific islands may be Covid-free for now but we ask them to continue to be vigilant and upgrade their response capacity,” he said." Seize this moment to address noncommunicable conditions and use this opportunity to have a healthier population, to avoid being at high-risk for Covid-19.”

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Noncommunicable diseases are disorders occurring on individuals with lifestyles that lack exercise and high-fiber diet, such as heart and cardiovascular disorders, hypertension, diabetes. They are co-morbidities for Covid-19. Kasai mentioned that in Samoa, 83percent of the population has noncommunicable diseases and 30 percent

have hypertension.

The virtual press conference was held after the 71st Session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific that is held annually in the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office (WHO-WPRO). Headquartered in Manila, the WHO-WPRO is a regional office of the world health body that works in 37 countries and areas with more than one quarter of the world’s population.

“The 15-country Pacific Islands has yet to record a single case but as long as virus is circulating in the world, no country is safe and there is no sign that virus is going away quickly,” Kasai said. “We also ask the governments in these countries to continue to build and sustain the new normal and maintain solidarity so that they can control virus transmission even as they bring back the economy and social life of people.”

Dr. Babatunde Olowokure, director of Health Security and Emergencies of the WHO-WPRO, said the type of climate in the Pacific islands, which is warm and humid, may be a factor for the region not being Covid-free, but he cautioned that as virus transmission is being reported in almost all countries, it may not be advisable to keep believing in it.

“Environmental conditions can play a role, but as almost all countries have the virus, it clearly shows that the virus can thrive in any type of climate,” he said. He emphasized that it is important to know that community transmission can be driven by individual behavior and hygiene, and not practicing physical distancing.

“But we see that the strong community is an important component in the Covid response. We have observed in the past nine months the strong partnership in the region,” he said. “Pacific island leaders had very strong actions at an early point during the pandemic. We still see them free from Covid-19 and they’re in the right direction."

Both Kasai and Olowokure reminded the region to keep upgrading their health response capacity and health security preparedness in maintaining the measures to reduce transmission.

The two WHO leaders said the small island countries, although with limited allocation, are also part of the vaccine prioritization of the WHO, which is leading the global clinical initiatives for a Covid-19 vaccine.

Health ministers and senior officials from countries and areas across Asia and the Pacific are gathering virtually this week to agree actions on health issues of the region and chart priorities for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Western Pacific.

“Last year, we gathered in Manila and talked about how, together, we would work towards addressing the challenges facing our region in the future. None of us could have imagined how quickly the future would arrive,"

Kasai said in his opening remarks at the 71st session.

"Covid-19 is the most challenging public health event we have seen in 100 years – and it is testing not only the capacity of our health systems, but also the resilience of our societies and economies."

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