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Editorial: Anti-ZIKV project on right path

Published:Thursday | December 17, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Horace Dalley is, by and large, getting it right. The latest example is his ministry's move to engage public health monitors as part of an anti-mosquito/ Zika virus (ZIKV) campaign. Hopefully, it signals the revival of the model in public-health management that served Jamaica well in the past.

Mr Dalley was appointed the health minister less than two months ago when Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was forced to acknowledge the collapse of public confidence in Fenton Ferguson over the death of 19 pre-term babies from nosocomial infections at two of the island's top hospitals and the reported poor conditions of government health facilities. While the death of the babies may have been the immediate cause of Dr Ferguson's downfall, it represented, in fact, the result of a series of strikes against the former minister, not least of which was his mindless spinning of last year's epidemic of chikungunya, a virus transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Dr Ferguson and his technocrats could hardly have prevented the arrival of chik-V to Jamaica. They, however, made two fundamental mistakes, starting with their failure to mobilise communities into a clean-up effort to lessen the conditions in which the Aedes aegypti, the chik-V vector, breeds. That happened late in the day, at the instigation of the prime minister, in the face of public criticism of her Government's response to the epidemic.

The second weakness was Dr Ferguson's consistent reference to "confirmed cases" of chik-V, which, while it may have been statistically correct, didn't accord to the reality of the people who suffered from the disease. We suppose that is Fenton Ferguson's character flaw - seeing the highlighting of concerns as accusation of personal failure rather than problems to be fixed.

Mr Dalley, apparently, has learned from Dr Ferguson's errors, judging from his response to the ZIKV, which is not yet in Jamaica, but elsewhere in the hemisphere and likely on its way here. It has the vector and symptoms similar to chik-V, hence the relevance of Mr Dalley's strategy.

Public-education programme

The health minister launched a project in which 1,000 mostly young people have been recruited to deliver literature with information about ZIKV in communities across the island and how people can prevent it. They will also report on potentially significant breeding sites for the mosquito.

There is obvious value here. At a minimum wage of J$7,500 weekly, 1,000 persons will gain employment doing something of real social and economic worth. Second, the project harks back to the days when there was an active corps of public-health inspectors who monitored the environment, as well as people's homes, to ensure that they maintained basic standards. This approach to public-health management has largely fallen out of favour, yet it contributed greatly to the decline of communicable diseases in Jamaica and in lifting life expectancy to First World standards. It is a system to which Jamaica should return, given its limited financial resources to spend on health services. Further, Mr Dalley should use this team of workers as a platform for broader community moblisation for preventative and primary health care, including projects to promote healthy lifestyle changes and the use of community health facilities, such as clinics.

He also has unfinished business with the regional health authorities: there are more to be fired.