Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Ebola: no need to panic

Published:Monday | October 20, 2014 | 10:00 AM

Michael Abrahams, Online Columnist

The poor handling of the chikungunya epidemic in Jamaica leaves a lot to be desired and has caused many Jamaicans to lose confidence in the minister of health and the Government.

The disease appeared in the Caribbean in 2013 and has been gradually spreading throughout the region since early 2014. So, persons in positions of authority must have known that this disease was on the horizon, but we saw no evidence of steps being taken to adequately prepare us for the impending onslaught. For example, no aggressive and highly visible public-education campaigns or widespread clean-up drives.

Surely enough, the virus has hit us - and hit us hard. Productivity has been severely affected because of absenteeism resulting from the viral illness, and the economic cost of the disease may run into billions of dollars. All sectors have been affected, from business and education to entertainment and sports. Even more disturbing is the fact that people are dying from the illness. It was reported last week that one school lost three people, two teachers and a student, as a result of the illness apparently worsening pre-existing conditions that were already affecting them.

Now, with the real threat of Ebola, and the lack of confidence in our Government in many quarters, a lot of Jamaicans are worried about the ability of our leadership to manage the disease effectively, should it reach our shores.

I must say that I was disappointed with what transpired when someone who recently visited Liberia landed in Montego Bay and took a taxi to a hotel, where pandemonium ensued. The media reported that high-level meetings were being held to decide how to deal with the situation. We knew that it would just be a matter of time before someone who has recently been to one of the Ebola-afflicted countries would be visiting our country. So why weren't protocols developed to instruct Customs and Immigration clearly on how to deal with arrivals from these ports? And why were there no thermal sensors to measure temperature at our ports of entry until after someone from an affected country arrived here?

Having said that, as a member of the medical fraternity, having access to information that the public may not be aware of, I feel that it would be responsible and appropriate to share what I do know with the general public, to reduce some of the anxiety and allay some of the fears of my fellow Jamaicans. The good news is that, behind the scenes, there is a lot being done to prepare us for Ebola in the event that it does reach our country.

Just last week, before the incident with the traveller who visited Liberia, I downloaded 60 pages of material issued by the Ministry of Health regarding the management of Ebola. This information was emailed by the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) to all its members. The documents contain detailed protocols and guidelines dealing with the management of patients with the disease, the transport of affected patients, the collection and transport of laboratory specimens, infection prevention and control, and epidemiological surveillance. I also attended a meeting, at the office of the MAJ, called to deal specifically with chikungunya and Ebola.

The establishment of an integrated national coordinating team, headed by the Ministry of Health and the Jamaica Defence Force, must be applauded. Also, the prime minister's decision to invite parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide to a recent meeting on Ebola is also to be commended. She stated, "Where Ebola is concerned, we simply cannot afford any divisiveness of any kind. We need to be speaking with one voice on this matter." This attitude is a step in the right direction.

It appears that the Government has learnt from the mistakes made with the handling of the chikungunya crisis, and is making an effort to be more proactive with Ebola. In the meantime, it is important not to panic. The disease is deadly, but is not as easily transmitted as many people think. For example, the most severely affected African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, all have relatively porous borders, yet other adjoining countries are not experiencing outbreaks. This is a reassuring thought, don't you think?

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician,  comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.