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OECS Health Ministers discuss “Health System Strengthening and Laboratory Advocacy during the COVID-19 Pandemic”

The 7th Annual meeting of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Council of Ministers: Health convened virtually  on Wednesday, 24th November, 2021. The Meeting was chaired by Anguilla’s Premier and Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Ellis Webster, under the theme “Health System Strengthening and Laboratory Advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

OECS Member states attended, namely Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Montserrat, Martinique, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The Meeting benefited from the presence of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), and the Caribbean Med Labs Foundation.

In his welcome address, the Chairman referenced the adage “health is wealth”, and emphasised the importance of providing necessary resources for health system strengthening.

The Meeting highlights are as follows:

1. Dr. Avion Bamodu, Programme Director for Health at the OECS Commission informed of the strategic refocusing of the OECS Commission to meet the dynamic needs of its Member States. The Council of Ministers acknowledged and supported the OECS Health Programme and its donor-funded projects: the OECS-World Bank Regional Health Project, the Global Fund HIV TB Elimination Project, the World Diabetes Foundation Projects and the European Union-funded InterregCARES Project. The Council of Ministers pledged to increase human resources to support the delivery of the OECS Health Programme.

2. A proposal from the Territorial Collectivity of Martinique for the creation of a Caribbean Institute for Nuclear Imaging based in Martinique, which will host a Cyclotron – PET Scan, to advance Cancer Care in the OECS subregion.

3. The Council of Ministers of Health acknowledged the contributions and strategic partnership of CARPHA, the OECS Commission’s Health Unit and the OECS Commission’s Pooled Procurement Service (OECS PPS). Dr. Joy St. John and staff of CARPHA provided updates on regional and sectoral coordination, epidemiological surveillance, lab testing, support to the COVID – 19 vaccine programme, the Tourism Health Programme, capacity building, risk communication and resource mobilisation. CARPHA provided updates on its work to strengthen lab quality management including the development of a regional plan to address biosafety and biosecurity and the adoption of national lab policies through the efforts of the Caribbean Public Health Lab Network.

4. Dr. Yitades Gebre, PAHO/ WHO Representative for Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Countries and staff presented on PAHO’s work to improve vaccine equity in the OECS subregion, vaccine deployment, procurement of medical equipment, protect and train health workers, risk communication and COVID-19 remote laboratory strengthening. The Ministers of Health endorsed PAHOs recommendations to strengthen leadership and governance for the Essential Public health functions, to strengthen primary and community care, to increase and sustain public financing in health, the implementation of digital health solutions, to improve access to quality health services, and to strengthen laboratory capacity.

5. Dr Carlene Radix, Head of Human and Social Division at the OECS Commission recognised Anguilla as the most vaccinated country in the OECS subregion. Anguilla has a vaccination rate of over 60% for their population.

6. Valerie Wilson, Executive Director of the Caribbean Medical Laboratory Foundation presented on laboratory regulation and accreditation noting that labs provide 80% of the information needed for clinical decisions and are critical for accurate diagnoses and responses to disease. The Ministers agreed to champion the lab service mandate for standards adoption, policy development, legislation and regulation at Cabinet level, to prioritize the identification of resources for laboratory accreditations, Quality Management Service development and support resource mobilization efforts.

7. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ Mr Cuthbert Knights, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, shared the country’s experience in implementing a decentralised laboratory business model with separate lab budgets. Dr. Wayne Felicen, Laboratory Director for Saint Lucia, shared country experience on the integration of laboratory quality and health service quality. He shared on the Saint Lucia National Quality Policy 2016-2026, and the introduction of ISO 15189 on the Regulatory Standard for Medical Laboratories.

8. The meeting received a briefing by Mr. Abraham Weekes, Senior Technical Specialist responsible for quality assurance at the OECS PPS on the integral nature of pooled procurement of laboratory equipment and supplies to this transformation.

The Meeting concluded with an endorsement of the recommendations for health system strengthening and laboratory advocacy by the 7th Council of Ministers of Health.

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