Wed | Apr 26, 2017

Editorial: A new plan for health

Published:Thursday | May 21, 2015 | 5:03 AM

The health ministry this week made two important strategic moves. They came out early about a new mosquito-borne virus that might reach Jamaica; and they have, so far, kept Health Minister Fenton Ferguson out of the fray.

They should go one better: find a way to place Dr Ferguson in quarantine and incommunicado. He should be nowhere near to influencing the communication and prevention strategies for this potential health problem, thus lessening his ability to make a mess of them - the way he did with the chikungunya crisis. We suspect, though, that we hope for too much. In which event, we wish that the minister learnt something from the chik-V affair and that the ministry's response to the zika virus will continue with the deftness with which it has started.

In that respect, two things must happen. The immediate one is the revival of the anti-chikungunya programme that started late into that epidemic, but, as is the wont with Jamaican Government projects, soon flagged for want of mobilisation and leadership. Its drivers grew bored and tired in the absence of its place in an overarching vision for health care. The other is the rethinking of Jamaica's broad health-care delivery strategy and, thus, an overhaul of policy. This, perforce, is a long-term project.

The zika virus, we were advised, is a disease similar in effect and symptoms to dengue fever and chikungunya, which has found its way to this hemisphere. Like them, it is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It has no specific cure or vaccine.

The best way to prevent the spread of the disease, therefore, is to control the spread of its vector by denying the mosquitoes places to breed. That means a focus on public health and public-health education: collecting garbage, trimming verges, cleaning drains and telling people about the health value of keeping their physical surroundings clean. In other words, it is doing, on an ongoing basis, what officials only started to talk about when chikungunya had already developed into a full-blown crisis and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller felt compelled to supplant Dr Ferguson to reset the Government's response.

BETTER ATTUNED TO THE DANGERS

This time, judging by the health ministry's quick move out of the blocks, the authorities seem better attuned to the dangers and should have more resources with which to respond to them. For instance, at J$47.8 billion, the health ministry's budget for the current fiscal year is 18 per cent more than the previous one. But perhaps, more important, the $410 million it has to spend in areas such as disease prevention and control, environmental health and health education represents an increase of 162 per cent. This money must be properly used.

What chik-V and the zika virus underline for a poor country like Jamaica is the need not only to efficiently utilise its health budget, but for the employment of these resources where they have greatest value to people's health. That means a concentration on public, preventative and primary health care rather than on specialist cancer hospitals that appear to occupy the musings of Dr Ferguson. We argue for the return of public health inspectors, health education officers, community nurses and clinics, who helped lift health standards, but are now in danger of extinction.