The period of mid-2015 to mid-2016 was a challenging one for public health in the Americas.
The Pan American Health Organization’s member countries found themselves facing a new and unfamiliar virus, Zika.
At first, Zika seemed to cause only mild symptoms. But within a few months of its debut in Brazil, health workers in the country’s northeast observed an increase in newborn babies with unusually small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.
In the following months, thousands of microcephaly cases were reported in areas where the virus was spreading. Zika’s spread also coincided with a rise in cases of the neurological condition known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS.
By the end of 2015, Zika had traveled beyond Brazil to Colombia. By mid-2016, 40 countries and territories of the Americas were reporting local transmission. A growing number were also experiencing the virus’s most serious health effects.
From the earliest stages of the epidemic, PAHO experts in epidemic alert and response took on the job of facilitating and coordinating a regional response to the new virus.
In addition to its own staff, PAHO mobilized missions of international experts from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.
All these experts helped countries prepare for the possible introduction of Zika and cope with its health impact. PAHO provided technical and ethical guidance based on the best scientific evidence available. The organization also promoted a regional research agenda to expand scientific knowledge about Zika virus.
Though Zika was a uniquely challenging health crisis, PAHO responded to other important emergencies during 2015 and 2016.
The most serious was a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Ecuador on April 16, 2016. The quake claimed more than 600 lives and forced over 33,000 people to seek refuge in shelters.
PAHO helped Ecuador’s health authorities carry out damage and needs assessments and coordinate the distribution of medicines and medical supplies.
Together with other humanitarian partners, PAHO joined an urgent appeal to raise international funds for Ecuador’s response and recovery.
PAHO also supported other countries with health emergencies resulting from extreme weather events, including Hurricane Joaquin in the Bahamas, Tropical Storm Erika in Dominica, and severe flooding in Paraguay as a result of the El Niño climate phenomenon.
While supporting emergency response efforts, PAHO also continued to make internal improvements to increase its efficiency and effectiveness as an institution.
It also continued its broad range of technical cooperation with member countries to address other pressing public health challenges.
• noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease;
• infectious, neglected and vector-borne diseases including malaria, dengue, onchocercosis and trachoma;
• as well as efforts to eliminate measles and mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
PAHO’s support during health emergencies and its ongoing technical cooperation have both emphasized the overarching need to make health systems stronger and more resilient.
To advance that goal, PAHO worked with countries throughout the Region to increase health financing, improve access to essential and high-cost medicines, strengthen drug regulatory systems, and better integrate healthcare delivery.
All these efforts were aimed at advancing toward the achievement of universal access to health and universal coverage.
This goal, Health for All—which was unanimously endorsed by PAHO Member States in 2014—remains the guiding vision for PAHO’s technical cooperation with its member countries—now and into the future.