Thu | Jan 24, 2019

Editorial - Playing politics with health

Published:Thursday | September 11, 2014 | 12:00 AM

it IS sometimes ignorance in apprehension, but there is, too, a deliberate tendency in Jamaica of distorting or politicising data with the intent of making the other side look bad. It happens often in the interpretation of economic statistics, such as GDP growth numbers, employment data and poverty levels.

When these improve, the party in opposition, which while in office trusted the expertise and professionalism of the people who gather and analyse the information, insists that the data are being manipulated. Never mind that nothing has changed - neither staff nor methodology.

We sense that the same game is on with regard to the outbreak in Jamaica of the chikungunya virus, which has symptoms similar to dengue fever, and which, like dengue, is transmitted by mosquitoes. We perhaps ought not be surprised that a key player is Delano Seiveright, the unrequited partisan, who cut his political teeth in a down-in-the-trenches presidency of the youth arm of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Generation 2000, and is also credited with contributing the snarling bits to the JLP's campaign for the last general election. He is the party's presumptive candidate for the East St Thomas constituency when Jamaicans next go to the poll.

Up to a week ago, the time of the last official data, there were 24 confirmed cases of chikungunya here and 85 suspected ones, the latter awaiting confirmation by a regional testing laboratory. Mr Seiveright, based on anecdotal evidence from his walkabout in his prospective constituency, insists that there are far more cases of the disease in the island, which there may well be.

But being a man not given to bypassing any glimmer of political advantage, Mr Seiveright suggests political cover-up on the part of the Government. That, of course, would require more than the effort of Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson. It would need collusion from the health professionals in the ministry. Surprisingly, Mr Seiveright has had support, though not as robust, from Dr Ken Baugh, the shadow health minister, who has held the portfolio.

The problem here is that the health ministry did not claim that there were only 24, or 109 cases of chikungunya. Indeed, the authorities offered a formula for extrapolating the potential number of infections in a community, based on a single confirmed case and a number of persons living within a specific radius of the affected individual. Further, the system being used by the health ministry to report on chikungunya infections is what is accredited by the World Health Organization.

improve health care

We believe that there are many issues, some highlighted by the chikungunya outbreak, on which to challenge Dr Ferguson on health policy, but data reporting is the least of them. For instance, rather than obsessing about some facility to make Jamaica world leader in cancer treatment, Dr Ferguson would better spend his time concentrating on improving the primary and preventative health-care and environmental-health systems.

The spread of chikungunya is in part the failure of individuals and communities to take responsibility for their surroundings, thus providing havens for the vector. But Dr Ferguson is yet to master the zealous promotion of environmental-health matters, which, if he did, might give new prestige to that dying species known as the public health officer and the community nurse.

The minister will point to the ban on smoking in public places as success in preventative medicine. But there is grunt work to do.

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