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EDITORIAL - Chikungunya's opportunity

Published:Friday | October 3, 2014 | 12:00 AM

In a perverse sort of way, the chikungunya epidemic is a great opportunity for the Government and, ultimately, for Jamaica. The administration, as this newspaper has long advocated, should begin to get the small things done, like cleaning up the country.

We, therefore, welcome Prime Minister (PM) Portia Simpson Miller's declared support, and hopefully genuine enthusiasm, for such a project. Should the PM be serious, she faces two potential obstacles to getting the job done. The first is Fenton Ferguson, her health minister, who perceives his mandate, it seems, in shiny, dramatic vistas, like world-class cancer-treatment centres and headline-grabbing smoking bans, rather than the grubby, in-the-trenches public-health stuff.

Then there is Jennifer Edwards, who heads the Government's solid waste-management agency, and is skilled at moaning about the lack of resources and is seemingly disinclined to thinking creatively about solving problems. She has admitted to removing skips from communities because residents did not always put all their rubbish in them. It is better, we presume, if all the garbage goes to the ground.

In this regard, we urge the PM to lead from the front in this matter. The advantages to her Government are obvious, not least being the possibility of winning back some of the political credibility lost by the administration because of Dr Ferguson's poor communication on the chikungunya crisis. Indeed, Mrs Simpson Miller is especially skilled at communicating with the majority of the Jamaican people.

Further, the prime minister has an interest in safeguarding the country's nascent economic recovery, including the four consecutive quarters of growth, which could be at risk from the chikungunya epidemic. There is no specific data on the numbers of people who have fallen ill with the infection, but the anecdotal information suggests that it has already cost the economy hundreds of thousands of man-hours, lost production, and depressed consumption.

There is no way to prevent the continued spread of the disease, for which there is no antibiotic and to which Jamaicans are yet to develop immunity. However, the velocity of its spread can be slowed. Chikungunya is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in stagnant water around homes. It is the same mosquito that transmits dengue fever.

THE DENGUE EPIDEMIC

Thirty-seven years ago, when Jamaica confronted a similarly explosive epidemic by a new strain of dengue, it was quickly contained with the aggressive mobilisation of communities and public-health officials for a clean-up of breeding sites. Indeed, it is this kind of primary public-health intervention that led to the elimination of many infectious diseases from Jamaica, contributing to the country's First World-style longevity. It is an approach to public-health management that authorities appear to be less committed and, therefore, may be in danger of slipping.

Yet, it is the cheapest form of health intervention - public-health hygiene. Unlike what the solid-waste company's Jennifer Edwards may think, clean-up efforts, mostly done with volunteers and minimum wage workers, need not be overly expensive. In the event, if this approach to public-health management becomes the norm, the budget across related ministries could be restructured to reflect the norm.

There is another value to this kind of public-health management. Clean communities, where verges are cut and drains are cleaned, are likely to enhance people's self-esteem, affecting their behaviour accordingly.

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: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.