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The World Health Organization (WHO) advised Asia-Pacific nations on Tuesday not to abandon other immunization and health programs during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, fearing to do so could cause the region to “face new crises at a time when health systems are already strained.”

The WHO highlighted that when immunization rates go down, nearly-eradicated infectious diseases can return. 

"The WHO is calling on countries across Asia and the Pacific to continue immunization services during the COVID-19 pandemic, where it’s feasible and with appropriate infection control,” Takeshi Kasai, the WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, stated during a virtual press conference. “Likewise, we’re conscious that the health of millions of people in this region depends on continued access to care and treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and many other acute and chronic conditions.”

Kasai added: “We cannot let the COVID-19 response put their lives at risk by compromising these services.” 

Polio, measles, rubella, and hepatitis B were singled out as diseases that have the potential to come back with a vengeance.

Measles, a vaccine-preventable disease, has resurfaced  in Samoa, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao, Hong Kong, and New Zealand, among others, over the last few years.

As of April 22, the Western Pacific region has recorded 136,000 COVID-19 cases.

The majority of these cases, however, are from China. Varying social distancing measures throughout the region have succeeded in blocking widespread transmission — particularly across countries like Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and Cambodia, which have 7, 23, and 122 confirmed cases, respectively. 

Still, Kasai reiterated that “this is not the time to relax.”

"Instead, we need to ready ourselves for a new way of living in the foreseeable future," he said. "As long as the new coronavirus is circulating, no country is safe from potentially overwhelming outbreaks.”

Kasai called on citizens to continue practicing social distancing and handwashing — while also urging the private sector to support employees to work from home and governments to “prepare for the worst” by building robust health systems in “every corner of their country.”


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The WHO Warns Asia-Pacific Not to Neglect Immunization Programs Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Madeleine Keck