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Gov't delayed announcing malaria outbreak, says US

Published:Monday | June 6, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Simpson Miller

A SENIOR official of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) in 2006 accused the Portia Simpson Miller administration of delaying the public announcement on the malaria outbreak at the time because it feared that the tourist industry could be seriously impacted.

The PAHO official also charged that the Government's response was tardy because it initially underestimated the geographical expansion of the outbreak.

A December 2006 diplomatic cable from the United States Embassy in Kingston alleged that the PAHO official reported that when the public announcement was made on November 11, 2006, the Ministry of Health had known from nine days earlier that the mosquito-borne disease was detected locally.

US Embassy officials reported that the PAHO executive charged that local health officials were aware of the first malaria case from November 2, 2006, but had not alerted anyone, nor heightened their alert system.

In the secret diplomatic cable acquired by The Gleaner through WikiLeaks, the PAHO representative told American officials that the "ostrich mentality" of the Jamaican health personnel arose from "fears that the tourist industry would suffer".

At that time, the PAHO official had warned that the malaria outbreak would likely get worse before it got better.

A little more than two months after the first case was reported by local health officials, the PAHO representative's projection was confirmed as the reported number of cases climbed to more than 200.

In a private discussion with US Embassy officials on December 8, 2006, the PAHO official said there were 53 confirmed cases, but there were another 750 people exhibiting symptoms "consistent with the disease".

aggressive and relentless action

In a candid discussion with ministry of health officials, the PAHO representative also warned that "no nation that has previously eradicated malaria has ever been able to eradicate it a second time once it gets a firm foothold".

The health envoy told US Embassy officials that this comment might have mobilised the health ministry into quick, aggressive and relentless action.

Despite the Government's initial failings, the PAHO official said it later appeared to recognise the scale of the problem and "was making strides".

According to the cable, the PAHO representative reported that he had interviewed two of the persons who contracted malaria and one had told him that he made regular runs between Haiti and Jamaica, taking marijuana for sale there and using the proceeds to buy guns, which were then smuggled back to Jamaica.

The patient claimed to have travelled back and forth no less than nine times.

The malaria strain found in Jamaica in 2006 was transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito and was Plasmodium falciparum a most virulent strain. This strain was then common in Haiti, giving credence to the belief that this was the source of the outbreak.

According to the cable, while the Jamaican Government was telling the country that the outbreak was tightly localised, "in reality the highly mobile nature of the Jamaican population means that the potential spread was islandwide".

"He further stated that PAHO scientists performed dip-tests along a wide swath of drainage canal in Kingston and registered results positive at 348 of 350 sites," the cable said.

US Embassy officials opined that one positive consequence of the malaria outbreak was that the Ministry of National Security had subsequently tightened security in this area in an effort to reduce the number of boats making trips between Jamaica and Haiti.