Sat | Dec 10, 2016

If Ebola hits Jamaica

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

It is a good thing that the chikungunya virus (chik-V) is not normally fatal, otherwise hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans by now would be dead. Jamaica's population would have fallen below two million for the first time since the 1970s.

We need to remember the great epidemic of Asiatic cholera we suffered in 1850. Jamaica's population then was about 400,000 and 32,000 died of cholera; 3,675 died in Kingston alone, out of a population of about 40,000.

By some estimates, at the end of this chik-V outbreak, about 60 per cent of Jamaicans will have been infected. Minister of Health Fenton Ferguson claims we have been preparing for the coming of chik-V for the last two years. I say this tongue in cheek: it is a good thing we were prepared, or it might have spread faster and affected more people.

Could it really have been worse? Was there even an ounce of prevention, considering there is no cure for chik-V? To an observer, the spread of chik-V seems unbridled, and we are told it has not yet peaked.

There have been widespread calls for the resignation of Minister Ferguson for mishandling the epidemic, but I am not convinced he has mishandled anything. I believe he has followed to the letter his instructions from Cabinet.

Reported cases

Why were the reported number of suspected cases of chik-V so low? There was intentional under-reporting because the Government didn't want to risk a travel advisory that would scare away the tourists. Why were the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of chik-V so low? Because a high-level decision was taken not to send any more blood samples to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) laboratory for testing. Why did the Ministry of Health stop releasing information on the number of laboratory-confirmed chik-V cases? Because it would have become too obvious that we were not doing any more testing.

Minister Ferguson's job is safe because he did exactly what he was told to do.

I'm sure the feeling was that, medically, chik-V is not really serious. No one is going to die. People will feel sick for a few days, and then they will feel better, and soon it will all be forgotten. The miscalculation is the uncertainty: a mysterious incurable disease with a guzu-sounding name falls upon increasing numbers of people. Only some of the symptoms can be treated, and the recommended medication begins to get scarce. Inadequate information leads to suspicions of a cover-up. The people in high places are silent, and when they do speak, they sound like they are hiding something; and uncertainty continues to grow.

Although Minister Ferguson's job is safe - for now - the whole Cabinet must be feeling somewhat insecure.

First American case

The first confirmed case of Ebola infection in the USA has to have everybody worried. Stocks of major airlines slid Wednesday, while shares of pharmaceutical companies moved higher, indicating where the Western world may be heading over the next few months. Here in Jamaica, for once, tourism should not be our predominant concern. Let's see how good the Government is in protecting the lives of Jamaican residents and citizens.

No cure has yet been found for Ebola infection, which carries a mortality rate of 90 per cent if left untreated. The current outbreak, however, has so far had a fatality rate of 70 per cent. Patients can survive if they are rehydrated and treated for their symptoms in hospital.

We must not deal with Ebola in the same way we have dealt with chik-V. The Government claims to have a plan in place to deal with Ebola in Jamaica. I want to believe them, but their approach to chik-V does not inspire confidence. That is one of the downsides of silence and obfuscation.

Ebola is one of the world's deadliest diseases. I am told that success in fighting Ebola has to do with isolation. Do we have isolation facilities at our ports of entry by air and sea? Do we have isolation facilities at our hospitals? How many isolation beds are there in the Jamaican health-care system? Do we have the isolation 'spacesuits' to protect Jamaican health workers? Suppose I am found to have come in contact with an infected person, where should I go? If I stay home, what happens when I run out of food?

If - God forbid - Ebola reaches Jamaican soil, does Jamaica have access to the experimental treatment ZMapp, which was given to British nurse William Pooley, American missionary Dr Kent Brantly, and aid worker Nancy Writebol, who all made a full recovery?

Can we have some credible information, please?

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.