EDITORIAL - All eyes on chikungunya
In mid-May, this newspaper raised concerns about the mosquito-bearing chikungunya virus, calling for a concerted effort from policymakers, health-care officials and the wider community to be vigilant in storage and use of domestic water and to monitor drains, gully areas and standing bodies of water, which are breeding grounds for the vector.
We also suggested back then that resources be found to employ trained personnel to ensure strengthened environmental control and proper sanitation measures in all communities since it was our view that travellers may decide to shun the Caribbean if it were perceived as being overrun by chikungunya, which would be detrimental to tourism interests.
There was no discernible public reaction from the health authorities to our editorial, and there was no detectable sense of urgency about this viral disease, which was first detected in the region late last year. In any event, there was little attempt to educate the population about the disease or to develop a mitigation strategy.
Some persons may have been left with the impression that only travellers to affected countries were at risk of getting this viral disease. But on Thursday, Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson revealed that there were two confirmed cases of chikungunya which were transmitted domestically.
As more and more countries in the region confirm cases, there are fears that the Caribbean is on the cusp of a chikungunya epidemic. The virus is not usually life-threatening, says the United States-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The symptoms include headache, fever and joint pain - much like dengue fever - and infected persons usually recover, although the impact can linger for weeks and months.
CONTROLLING THE VECTOR
Our research indicates that countries that are serious about protecting their population from disease have been testing mosquitoes to determine if they are carrying the virus. If the mosquito vector is uncontrolled, it could affect thousands of people. It is estimated that nearly 750,000 persons die each year from mosquito illnesses. Since December 2012, more than 36,000 suspected and confirmed cases of chikungunya have been reported in the Caribbean, with Haiti and the Dominican Republic having a significant number.
Two species of the Aedes mosquitoes (aegypti and albopictus) have been identified as carriers of the virus. They also carry the West Nile and dengue viruses. They are said to be easily identified by the white stripes on their bodies and legs and are aggressive daytime biters. The current hot, humid conditions are ideal for these mosquitoes to breed.
It is foolhardy to believe that any country is immune to the multitude of diseases that have been identified given the high level of travel and even goods being shipped. A seemingly innocent cough in a lift or a sneeze in a crowded aircraft could potentially start the next epidemic in our region. Eternal vigilance should be our watchword, and health officials have to be on guard constantly to take appropriate measures and share information with members of the public.
There is no vaccine to treat the chikungunya virus, so it is essential that members of the population understand how to protect themselves by avoiding exposure to mosquitoes and using repellants. Care should be taken to diminish exposure by the vulnerable groups such as newborns and those over 65 years old.
What else is out there to worry about? Ebola, perhaps.
The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.