Regional Public Health stakeholders endorsed the CARICOM Secretariat’s support for Member States’ involvement in the negotiations on the convention, agreement or other instrument on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response and to draft the CARICOM Position Paper.
They underscored the urgency to formulate and communicate CARICOM’s position to the Region and international community. The decision followed discussions at the 45th Meeting of the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) – Health (ministerial meeting) held from September 23-24 in Washington.
Stakeholders emphasised the need for a unified position on the priority areas for Member States identified in the instrument.
In addition, the COHSOD endorsed the proposal to strengthen regional capacity to produce and regulate medicines, including vaccines and health technologies, under the Health Development Partnership for Africa and the Caribbean (HeDPAC) and agreed to expand on the priorities of the proposal. HeDPAC is a health development platform between the African and Caribbean regions to strengthen South-South cooperation and build institutional capacity within and between the regions to address pressing health challenges collectively.
During the two-day meeting, stakeholders were engaged in in-depth discussions on health system matters, regional health security and regional cooperation matters.
Strengthening Regional Cooperation
In remarks, Allison Drayton, Assistant Secretary-General, Human and Social Development, CARICOM Secretariat, emphasised the need for continued regional cooperation with regional institutions and development partners on health challenges faced by Members States. These include non-communicable diseases (NCDs), climate change, and human resources for health.
“Within recent months, our lead public health agency, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), successfully secured a pandemic fund grant which will bolster efforts in surveillance, human resources and laboratory systems,” stated the ASG, “We thank the hard-working team of CARPHA and Member States for the significant work done to make it a reality. This will certainly contribute to building resilient health systems capable of responding to emergencies and pandemics effectively.”
Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Director, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), echoed her sentiments about regional cooperation, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic made it glaringly apparent that we can only overcome the public health trials of our times through unity and collective action.
“CARICOM was founded with this understanding,” stated Dr Barbosa, “It channels the collective capacities of its Member States and provides a productive forum to discuss international and joint technical cooperation.”
Priority Topics for Joint Action
The PAHO Director highlighted priority topics requiring joint action, including the successful implementation of evidence-based standards for Front of Package Warning Labels, agreement on communicable disease cross-border control measures, and improving the collective availability of healthcare workers across the Caribbean.
He stated, “This Region has faced its fair share of health crises. But every cloud has a silver lining. One optimistic spin-off of the pandemic is the aspiration of some Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to produce their own medicines and medical supplies.”
Regional and domestic production of essential health goods
Dr Barbosa warned that relying solely on imports for these essential health goods could leave SIDS highly vulnerable during health emergencies, like pandemics or natural disasters. He advised that ensuring regional and domestic production reduces dependency on external suppliers, mitigating the risk of shortages. Producing local medicines and medical supplies can stimulate economic development, create jobs, and save costs.
He advised that it is a challenging task worth the investment, requiring significant financial commitments over long periods and establishing pharmaceutical and related industries. However, identifying even the participation in a part of the chain of process is essential.
He reminded stakeholders that critical regional and international partners are ready to invest in well-developed projects that leverage existing resources. “PAHO stands ready to support you in approaching these partners and prioritising technical cooperation on the regulatory aspects, demand planning and other relevant topics,” stated the PAHO Director, “As you know, PAHO has several mechanisms to facilitate access to affordable medicines, vaccines, and health technologies, such your PAHO Revolving Funds, I hope that you use them extensively. These funds can also be used to leverage regional production in LAC.”
Quality health care for all
He underscored that Caribbean unity is also about building resilient health systems that can withstand future challenges and ensuring that people in our Region have access to quality healthcare, regardless of socioeconomic status or location. “It is about building systems that prevent diseases, promote well-being, and address the social determinants of health,” stated Dr Barbosa.
Priority Health Security Concerns
The PAHO Director referred to priority health security concerns for the Region. These included recapturing the immunisation gains of the past, addressing the emigration of health workers out of the Caribbean that leads to a lack of well-trained human resources for health, reversing the growing epidemic of NCDs with its devastating effects on health and economies, and mitigating the impact of the changing climate, including both health and economic consequences.
He reiterated that PAHO technical experts are working hand in hand with local authorities to develop and deploy evidence-based interventions to address these concerns and to build health systems that are strong, resilient, and ready to handle the next crisis, whenever it comes.
Dr Barbosa highlighted that NCDs are a significant priority concern. He emphasised that an estimated 80% of NCDs are preventable by reducing exposure to the associated major risk factors. He stated that the Region has proven public policy measures and legislative strategies that can benefit population health and economies. He noted that there has been increased use of health-related laws, specifically related to NCD risk factors in the Region.
“But we acknowledge that change is difficult. We face entrenched commercial and financial interests that hinder progress,” stated Dr Barbosa, “Through measures like front-of-package warning labels, the banning of trans fats and the creation of a smoke-free Caribbean, we can reverse the rates of NCDs.”
The meeting was chaired by Minister Kevin Bernard, Minister of Health and Wellness, Belize and included CARICOM ministers of health, permanent secretaries, chief medical officers, representatives of CARICOM, CARPHA and ministries of health, stakeholder organisations and development partners.
The 45th COHSOD was integral to fostering robust discussions, shared experiences, and policy decisions on proposed actionable recommendations with the overarching aim of better health outcomes for the people of the Caribbean Community.