As COVID-19 Cases In The Americas Rise; 1-4 People At Higher Risk Of Serious Illness Due To ‘Pervasive’ Incidence Of Underlying Diseases
WHO Regional Director for the Americas Carissa Etienne at a regular press conference

As global COVID-19 cases topped 5 million this past week, Latin America has surpassed Europe and the United States in terms of new cases being reported everyday, said WHO Regional Director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, at a Pan American Health Organization press conference on Tuesday.

There have been almost 32,000 new cases of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 24 hours, as compared to 24,000 in the United States and 18,000 in WHO’s European Region – which includes the recently hard-hit Russian Federation and Turkey as well as western European states, such as Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, which saw a major wave of infections in March and April.

However, the United States and Brazil are now the two countries with the highest cumulative number of reported cases worldwide, added Etienne.  And the Americas region as a whole has seen 2.4 million of the world’s 5.5 million reported cases, as well as 143,000 of the 350,000 deaths. As of Tuesday evening, the United States reached the 100,000 mark for deaths from the novel virus.

The latest data is ‘truly alarming’, Etienne said in light of the fact that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, cancers or other respiratory diseases are “pervasive” throughout the “Americas” region – and those diseases make people more vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19. 

“We have Never Seen Such a Deadly Relationship”

Prior to COVID-19, about 80% of all deaths in the Americas were already due to such non-communicable diseases and almost 40% of these deaths were premature, as they occurred before 70 years of age, said Etienne. The Americas Region, according to World Health Organization’s definitions, includes Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the United States and Canada.

That means one in four people in the Americas is at an increased risk of poor outcomes if they become infected with COVID-19, said Etienne.

“We have never seen such a deadly relationship between an infectious disease and NCDs”, said Etienne. “One of the most concerning aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic in PAHO is the disproportionate impact of the virus on people suffering from non-communicable diseases.”

Latin America has 62 million people living with diabetes and 1.2 million people living with cancer, and these populations are much more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Diabetics are twice as likely to have severe COVID-19 disease, according to a recent review of 16,000 patients with COVID-19. And in one Chinese study, almost 30% of cancer patients died from the virus, as compared to only 2% on average, said Etienne. 

Smoking increases vulnerability to COVID-19

Smoking prevalence is another risk factor in the Americas that is exacerbating the current crisis. About 15% of adults in the region still smoke, increasing the likelihood of developing severe illness from COVID-19, as smoking reduces respiratory capacity and promotes cancers, heart and lung disease.

For all of these reasons, she said, health systems need to prioritize prevention and control of non-communicable diseases along with supporting the pandemic response –  as treating NCDs can prevent COVID-19 from becoming life-threatening. 

“As cases continue to rise in our region, our efforts to protect those with underlying conditions must intensify,” she said. “We must ensure timely access to care for chronic diseases to prevent them from becoming life-threatening.”

“Fighting non-communicable diseases now is integral to our response to COVID-19. We need aggressive preventive measures to protect people with diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from the new coronavirus.”

If measures are not taken now to help people with NCDs, health systems will be faced with a “parallel epidemic” of preventable deaths in persons with those conditions.

The New Epicentre Of Infection – Latin America

There can be ‘no doubt’ that Latin America has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Etienne at Tuesday’s press conference.

And over the past day, the ‘highest increase’ in cases was seen in Latin American countries like Chile, Brazil and Peru.

While Chile has reported almost 5000 new cases in the past day, a 7% increase, Brazil has seen almost 16000 new cases over the past 24 hours, a 5% increase. Meanwhile, Peru and Mexico have each witnessed a 4% increase in cases over the past day, said Etienne.

Some countries in the region have successfully ramped up testing; Chile, for instance, has reached the milestone of 25,000 tests per million people, comparable with the highest range of testing rates in Europe at the height of the pandemic wave there. But testing is still ‘not sufficient’ in most other countries, said Director of PAHO’s Department of Communicable Diseases Marcos Espinal – The majority of South American nations are still only managing to test less than 5000-6000 people per 1 million, a figure that is much lower than most European countries.

The Americas has 40% of the world’s cases and 40% of total deaths

Image Credits: WHO, WHO.