Previous epidemics have shown that when health systems are overwhelmed, deaths from preventable and treatable conditions increase dramatically, UN health agency experts have warned. They have also referred to the peak of the pandemic in Spain and Italy, as well as the use of certain treatments and masks.
The World Health Organization’s director-general said on Monday that despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, essential health services need to continue.
“Babies are still being born, vaccines need to be administered and people still need life-saving treatment for a variety of other diseases,” said Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus.
According to Dr. Tedros, previous outbreaks have shown that when health systems are overwhelmed, deaths from vaccine-preventable and treatable conditions increase dramatically.
“The rapidly increasing demand for health facilities and health workers threatens to leave some health systems overburdened and unable to operate effectively,” he said.
The World Health Organization has issued guidelines to help countries balance the demands of responding directly to COVID-19 while maintaining essential health services.
The guidelines include a set of specific and immediate actions to reorganize and maintain access to high-quality essential health services, including routine immunization; care during pregnancy and childbirth; treatment of infectious and noncommunicable diseases and mental health conditions; blood services; and more.
“There is also a need to ensure an adequate health workforce to address the many health needs other than COVID-19,” she explained.
Tedros said WHO welcomes the announcement of 20,000 health workers in the United Kingdom who have offered to return to work, and that other countries such as Russia are involving medical students and trainees in the response.
A help manual for the COVID-19
To help countries manage the increase in COVID-19 cases while maintaining essential services, the Organization has also published a detailed and practical manual on how to establish and manage COVID-19 treatment centers.
The manual covers structural design, infection prevention and control measures, and ventilation systems.
“The manual covers structural design, infection prevention and control measures, and ventilation systems. These facilities will also have long-term benefits for health systems once the current crisis ends,” he said.
In addition to patient facilities, it is also vital that countries have sufficient diagnostic supplies, protective equipment and other medical supplies.
In addition, the free movement of essential health products is vital to saving lives and curbing the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Production must be increased
Tedros reported that he communicated with leaders of G20 countries to discuss ways to address chronic shortages of personal protective equipment and other essential medical supplies.
“We call on countries to work with companies to increase production; to ensure the free movement of essential health products; and to guarantee equitable distribution of those products, as needed,” he said.
The organization’s director stressed that special attention must be given to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
WHO is working intensively with several partners to greatly increase access to life-saving products, including diagnostics, personal protective equipment, medical oxygen, ventilators and more.
Quarantines must respect the welfare
Dr. Tedros also reminded countries that in implementing measures that restrict the movement of people it is vital to respect the dignity and well-being of all people.
In addition, it is important that governments keep their people informed about the expected duration of the measures and provide support for older people, refugees and other vulnerable groups.
“Governments must ensure the well-being of people who have lost their income and are in desperate need of food, health and other essential services,” said the World Health Organization leader, adding that it is necessary to work hand in hand with communities to build trust and support resilience and mental health.
“I come from a poor family and know what it is like to worry about your daily bread. Every country in the world must take this into account. Even in the richest country there are people who need to work for their daily bread, and this has to be taken into account,” said Tedros, who is from Ethiopia.
Humility and kindness in the time of the coronavirus
For the doctor, the COVID-19 reminds us how vulnerable we are, how connected we are and how dependent we are on each other.
“In the face of a storm like the coronavirus, scientific and public health tools are essential, but so are humility and kindness. With solidarity, humility and assuming the best of each other, we can, and will, overcome this together,” he concluded.
Hope that Italy and Spain are reaching the peak of contagion
During the press conference, World Health Organization experts said they expect Italy and Spain to reach the peak of the coronavirus infection curve, but they say that in order to reduce the numbers it will not be enough to keep the population isolated, but that they will have to continue testing.
Dr Mike Ryan explains that public health measures will be needed to bring the curve down.
“We’re hoping that Italy and Spain are almost there? Yes. Everyone is talking about the curve and stabilization, but the question is how do you go down? It’s not just about locking people up. Bringing the numbers down requires redoubling public health efforts to push down. They won’t come down on their own, you have to push. That’s what countries need to focus on now,” he said.
Dr. Maria VanKerkhove added that they need to use the margin of time provided by confinement to continue “aggressively searching” for cases of coronavirus, isolating contacts and treating those infected.
The WHO recommends testing until only 10 percent are positive. If 80 or 90% of the results are positive, many cases are escaping, although it recognizes that the possibility of testing depends on the number of tests available in the country.
“If we compare Italy and Spain to what happened in Wuhan, the main difference is that in Wuhan they not only locked people up, but they kept looking for cases,” Ryan reiterated.
Treatments and masks
Regarding chloroquine, the Organization clarifies that there is no specific treatment that “cures” the coronavirus. Medications such as chloroquine are being used to shorten the disease, improve some complications, and prevent mild cases from becoming more severe. Also, care must be taken to ensure that they do not run out because they are needed for other illnesses.
As for the masks, the experts recalled that the Organization does not recommend their use for those who are not sick.
“We do not recommend that people who are healthy wear masks. There is no evidence of any benefit. On the contrary, if they are not well handled there are risks. There is a lack of masks worldwide. Doctors are exposed to the coronavirus every second of every day,” said Dr. Ryan.