Anti-Covid vaccination in Colombia exceeds expectations in 1st year

Bogota, Feb 17 (EFE).- Colombia’s anti-coronavirus vaccination campaign, which began slowly and later than the campaigns in most other Latin American countries, has overcome a year of skepticism, bureaucratic and geographic obstacles and has substantially reduced the number of anticipated deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19.

According to figures provided by the Health Ministry, up through last Tuesday 75.3 million vaccine doses had been administered, with almost 33 million people having had the full regimen and 7.4 million having received booster shots, a result that was unthinkable a year ago.

That means that 80 percent of Colombia’s 50 million citizens have received at least one anti-Covid vaccine dose and 64.08 percent have completed the full two-dose series, figures similar to developed countries such as France and the United Kingdom, according to the Our World in Data Web site.

“The National Vaccination Plan is the most extensive mass public health strategy undertaken in the country in the past 20 years and it’s probably one of the most equitable and effective social policies that has been implemented in the country,” Health Minister Fernando Ruiz said on Thursday upon providing an overview of the first year of the campaign.

A Health Ministry study showed that the lives of more than 22,000 people over age 60, the age cohort most vulnerable to the coronavirus, were saved last year thanks to the vaccines.

“We estimate that during 2021 among people older than 60 we avoided more than 22,000 deaths. This is a conservative estimate, given that we only took into account the impact of the full vaccination series and, probably, the number of avoided deaths is really higher,” the ministry’s director of epidemiology, Julian Fernandez, said.

According to the study, between March and December 2021 more than 5.3 million people over age 60 received the two-dose vaccination series and although during this period about 46,000 people in this age group died, inoculating this age cohort prevented another 22,000 deaths, equivalent to 32.4 percent of the expected total.

The start of the vaccination program on Feb. 17, 2021, was marked by criticism of the government over the delay in buying and in the shipment of the first doses, as well as by the spectacle of the first inoculations, with President Ivan Duque, ministers, mayors and governors posing with doctors, nurses and patients.

On that day, Colombians witnessed live the administration of the first dose to Veronica Machado, a nurse in the city of Sincelejo, where the campaign kicked off to immunize 35.2 million people, or 70 percent of the national population, to try and achieve herd immunity.

But aside from the initial slowness, authorities had to deal with Colombia’s complex geography, a situation that required using all means of transportation, from airplanes and helicopters to mules and canoes, to get the vaccines to the country’s most isolated spots, going over mountains, along rivers and through jungles.

Despite the fact that Colombia experienced a third mortality peak between April and July last year and has suffered 137,586 deaths and 6,031,130 positive cases of Covid, the feared Omicron variant was less lethal than expected thanks to the vaccination program, according to the government and health experts.

“Definitely, the use of the vaccines protects, but you have to think that vaccination reduces not only the personal risk but also the risk of transmission, that is the risk to other people,” said the director of the San Ignacio University Hospital, Julio Cesar Castellanos.

Intensive care unit bed occupancy rates due to Covid, which were almost 100 percent last June and July during the third wave, currently stand at 16 percent and hospitalization due to the pandemic, with hospitals also being overwhelmed by Covid patients in mid-2021, has fallen to 6 percent of admissions, according to government figures that attribute these favorable statistics to the vaccines.

Since the start of the vaccination campaign, Colombia has acquired – through purchases or donations from the international community, more than 105 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen and Sinovac vaccines, of which 94 million doses have arrived in the country.

Standing out are the more than 6.5 million doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca donated by Spain via the Covax mechanism, with the Iberian nation being the biggest donor of vaccines to Colombia.

“It’s very important to move forward on covering that last frontier that remains to us, the population of children and … young adults under age 30 where we still have much work to do, especially in administering second doses, and also – very importantly – moving forward with booster shots, that third dose, for all Colombians over age 18,” the minister said.

EFE joc/jga/eat/bp

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