Jamaica yesterday received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines under the World Health Organization (WHO) COVAX (COVID-19 Global Access) facility with a firm assurance from Dr Bernadette Theodore-Gandi, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)/WHO representative here, that the booster is safe.

“The vaccines are very safe,” Dr Theodore-Gandi declared, pointing out that although the drugs were introduced recently, research on a similar type of vaccine had been ongoing for many, many years.

“Because of the [novel coronavirus] pandemic, we had to accelerate production and research. The vaccine has been used by over 200 million people in the world and we have not seen any evidence of serious adverse side effects,” she said after the shipment of 14,400 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines were offloaded from an aircraft at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston.

Dr Theodore-Gandi was referring to reports out of Europe that some countries — among them Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Austria — had halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after cases of blood clots were reported by some people who had been vaccinated.

However, health authorities in those countries have said there is no evidence so far of a connection with the blood clots and the vaccine. Equally, the European Medicines Agency last week said there is currently no indication that the vaccinations were the cause of the blood clots, which are not listed as side effects of the vaccine.

“Those countries have suspended it out of an abundance of caution. The WHO has reviewed the data from the countries and we have not seen any evidence to suggest the adverse events they have reported are actually due to the vaccines,” Dr Theodore-Gandi said as she urged Jamaicans to take the vaccine.

She told the Jamaica Observer that the events reported by the European countries are “what we would have expected normally among a general population. There aren’t any particularly high incidence amongst those who are vaccinated”.

Other Caribbean countries, Dr Theodore-Gandi said, will receive their vaccines from COVAX in the next few weeks.

The COVAX Facility brings together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society, and philanthropy to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Yesterday, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Jamaica representative Mariko Kagoshima said the vaccine will help to get Jamaica’s economy back on track as well as secure the future of children, who are at risk from the pandemic.

UNICEF partners with PAHO on COVAX projects globally.

Kagoshima pointed out that a UNICEF survey last year of 500 families islandwide showed that the pandemic had a severe economic impact on them.

“Over 80 per cent of the families confirmed that their income has been reduced and about 44 per cent of the families experience food shortage. At family level, violence has increased. Parents have admitted that they are shouting at and spanking the children more,” Kagoshima said.

“Families are stressed, they are having less income, they are having food shortages, and then they are confined in a small house. There are reports of more girls being sexually abused at home. We are all concerned and, of course, children are missing school. In Latin America and the Caribbean, all over, average days lost for children last year was 158 days of schooling,” she said.

“They lost almost half of the schooling days altogether. That means less learning and less probability of earning in the future. According to World Bank, Latin American children could lose up to US$15,000 in their lifetime because of this impact of the learning loss.

“Of course, school closure doesn’t mean only learning loss alone. They are not able to access school meals. Many children depend on those meals. They are not able to access protection as well. We are extremely concerned about the secondary impact of children,” the UNICEF official said.

Meanwhile, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton told journalists at the airport that he felt privileged and fortunate that Jamaica was the first country in the Caribbean to officially receive commercial doses of vaccines from the COVAX facility.

At the same time, he expressed hope that other countries in the region will receive their allotments soon.

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