Officials from the World Health Organization on Wednesday urged countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to limit administering booster shots and to hold off on vaccinating children, allocating scant doses to the most vulnerable.
“In some countries, we have seen vaccine doses reaching all levels of the population before a high percentage of vulnerable” residents has been fully immunized, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the W.H.O., said at a news conference.
Just 46 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated so far, with supplies being slow to reach many countries, the organization said. Inequities have plagued the region, too. While Chile and Uruguay have vaccinated more than 75 percent of their populations, countries like Haiti and Nicaragua have administered two shots to less than 20 percent of people.
Against this backdrop, vaccine supplies across the region must be distributed carefully and strategically, with the aim of reducing mortality and transmission of the virus among the adult population, Dr. Barbosa said.
“P.A.H.O. urges countries to prioritize the elderly, frontline workers and people with pre-existing conditions — to protect them, but also to prevent the health system from becoming overburdened with severe cases,” he said.
Offering vaccines to children and booster shots to others before high-risk groups are fully vaccinated — as the Dominican Republic has done — “may be defusing some of the efforts” to control the virus in the region, Dr. Barbosa added.
Still, echoing a recent W.H.O. recommendation, he stressed that older and immunocompromised people who received the Chinese-made vaccines Sinopharm or Sinovac Biotech would need a third shot to ensure that they were fully protected against Covid-19.
“Their vaccination cannot be considered complete until they have received their third shot,” said Dr. Barbosa, noting that there is no evidence that healthy adults who have received two doses need another.
This could affect millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, where many countries — including Chile and Brazil — have relied heavily on the more readily available Chinese-made shots to speed up vaccination.
Vaccine supplies distributed through the United Nations-backed Covax program are picking up pace, with Latin America and the Caribbean receiving around 64.3 million doses so far. Some 2.6 million doses have reached Venezuela, where the health system is especially fragile, and more supplies are expected in November.
New Covid-19 cases across Latin America and the Caribbean have been declining in recent weeks, offering an encouraging signal for the region, Dr. Barbosa noted. But he urged countries to stay vigilant and maintain public health measures, warning that the pandemic is not over.
“The declining case indices show that our approach is working,” he said. “And it is critical for all of us to stay the course until everyone is vaccinated and protected from the virus.”
Officials also warned about the possibility of a spike in infections with the onset of winter and the holiday season. As travel restrictions are lifted in many countries, tourism could pose an additional risk, said Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, the Covid-19 incident manager at P.A.H.O.
“Social distancing and avoiding closed environments, together with mask wearing, are the most important tools for limiting the transmission,” Dr. Aldighieri said. “The public really has to incorporate these basic measures into their lifestyle, including beach, seaside and vacation activities.”