Blocking Ebola from the backdoor
Jamaica's efforts to detect or prevent the deadly Ebola virus from entering the island could be stymied by the porous coastline which allows foreigners to enter the island undetected.
When our news team visited the fishing village at Old Harbour Bay in St Catherine last week, several residents expressed concerns about the possibility of the Ebola virus reaching Jamaica through that port.
"We are very worried about the conditions down here as it relates to the Ebola and the number of Haitian and Dominican and others who just come and go," said Marrion Budhoo.
Other residents claimed that just over one month ago a boat with several foreigners entered the island through the beach.
"A dung a terminus way dem live. Some visit, get woman and settle. A full time the authorities step up a deal with the monitoring of the seaside," said one fisherman as he was supported by others who argued that closer monitoring is necessary.
"It does not mean that we shouldn't manage the formal ports of entry, but a very serious concern exists on our informal entry points also, or soon an epidemic will be here," declared a businessman who argued that the Marine Police are not equipped to deal with the problem.
"Di poor police dem is almost useless out here as it is a canoe wid an engine dem have. Di police need a proper boat and other equipment to deal with di problem," said Marvaline Tinglin.
"There are concerns ... and the minister (Dr Fenton Ferguson) has asked the minister of state (for agriculture, fisheries, labour and social security), Luther Buchanan, to have discussions, as that falls under his portfolio," said acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dr Kevin Harvey, in response to the likelihood of persons with contagious diseases entering Jamaica.
"We have also said that the JDF through the coast guard who monitor these ports have been briefed and they are taking steps to enhance their intervention in those areas," added Harvey.
For opposition spokesman on health, Dr Ken Baugh, there needs to be urgent action to plug these access points to Jamaica.
"I am very concerned," said Baugh, as he argued that one important step that needs to be taken is to inform citizens who live along the shores, or frequent them, on how to deal with persons who they encounter and suspect to be ill.
"Those ports where there is a lot of illegal entries and intermingling of people create a sort of risk that we must deal with. Thinking back to the time when we had an outbreak of malaria, it was because of a lot of people - Jamaicans, Haitians, Hondurans - who intermingled, went to each other's ports and had relationships there which they had established and lived there, and then travelled to other areas.
"Ebola is now a more serious concern and we are not only concerned about people who are coming from a country in West Africa, but they can come here indirectly. We must remember, too, that it is not only West Africa where you have new viruses emerging and mutating; there is also a situation in Venezuela with the Venezuela hemorrhagic fever," said Baugh.
National Security Minister Peter Bunting has already admitted that these persons entering the island through the informal ports, although a minute portion (one per cent) of the people coming into Jamaica, could expose the country to the Ebola virus.
"So, while one primary area of our Ebola surveillance focus will be our formal sea and airports, another potential area that we are focusing on is ramping up the maritime surveillance capabilities," declared Bunting.
But deputy commissioner of police in charge of border control, James Golding, says it is extremely challenging to police our shores, as there are so many access points.
"We really have no sea borders; we are an island and a canoe can dock almost anywhere on our shores," said Golding.
"The borders are just porous and we will be taking a look at modern technology to see how best we can harden our borders," added Golding, as he also admitted the threat to public safety posed by persons entering the country undetected.
"I am not oblivious to the risk, and if that is happening, we will try and adjust it. It is routine that we try to prevent people from entering our shores illegally and we use the resources that we have as effectively as we can to do this - routine patrols, visits and intelligence."
Rasbert Turner also contributed to this story.