Chikungunya havoc in Jamaica
Delano Seiveright, Guest Columnist
The end of August is a stressful time for many parents. Getting children ready for the new school year is a daunting task for many: booklists, school bags, uniforms, shoes, the whole nine yards, is an expensive operation, especially so for the people of St Thomas, inarguably one of Jamaica's most underdeveloped parishes and, without a doubt, its most neglected.
Just days into taking on the role of opposition caretaker for St Thomas Eastern, requests for assistance from scores of constituents are still significant to this day. Thankfully, with the help of friends, we were able to support many parents.
THE PEOPLE SAY
On the last weekend of August, while walking a district outside Morant Bay, I was struck by the sheer number of persons, including little children, on one single road bed-ridden by severe joint pain, fever, headaches, rash, and other symptoms synonymous with chikungunya. Residents insisted that they were diagnosed as having chikungunya after visiting the doctor. They were instructed to take Panadol, drink plenty of fluids and rest.
I was sceptical, as I, like most Jamaicans, gobbled up Ministry of Health data then claiming 21 confirmed chikungunya cases. There was no way, then, that no fewer than a dozen residents on one roadway in one district could have the virus. After a week of checks with doctors, nurses, other districts in the parish, persons from other parishes, and so on, it dawned on me that some sort of outbreak was in full motion and that the figures being put out by the ministry were terribly misleading. Worst of all, the continued insistence by the ministry of its low-confirmed case count lulled people into a false sense of security, thereby exacerbating its rapid spread.
After visiting the same district a week later, no fewer than 30 persons were reported to have had symptoms of chikungunya. I inquired as to whether any fogging, drain cleaning and public-education programmes were in motion. The answer from all was a resounding no.
I had no choice but to make the information public, as by then, people all over St.Thomas were falling ill and government action was absent. Sadly, many citizens opted to suffer quietly, only occasionally arguing.
The initial reaction of the health minister, who happens to be the member of parliament for St Thomas Eastern, ground zero for this chikungunya outbreak, was to lash the Opposition and arrogantly claim that confirmed cases stood at 24. They refused to point out that the many persons crowding public health facilities and private doctors' offices were not being tested, clearly then keeping official numbers artificially low.
The ministry, probably unaware of the dynamic media environment that now incorporates social media, within a few days, lost credibility, as thousands more persons across several parishes reported falling ill.
The Ministry of Education belatedly revealed that 697 students and 60 teachers across 25 schools in St Thomas alone were absent because of "flu-like symptoms". At one St Thomas school, the principal and two vice-principals were all sick. The Government, despite the writing on the wall, continues to hide behind medical technicalities and protocols, while hundreds more suffer every day, and its response to date, certainly in St Thomas, is still barely noticeable.
With the chikungunya symptoms outbreak now completely out of control in St Thomas, the Kingston Metropolitan Area and St Catherine, and spreading into St Ann, St Mary and Portland, the Ministry of Health is clearly in a crisis of leadership.
With the entire public health system creaking from poor leadership, mismanagement and incompetence, as reflected at many public hospitals and clinics, many times, out of the most basic medical supplies, it should come as no surprise that the Government has made a complete mess of chikungunya. I refuse to even think what would have happened to us had we been hit by an Ebola outbreak.
A number of serious issues have arisen from this unfortunate development. For one, the Government has wasted time. For months, the Opposition has called on the relevant authorities to get on top of the garbage-collection dilemma. No serious action to date. And, probably worst of all, is that continued denials and obfuscation of the facts only put people at greater risk.
National Clean-up Day and increased awareness among the citizenry aside, the Government must now lead a multi-stakeholder response to urgently stem the rapid rate of increase in the number of persons with chikungunya symptoms.
Beyond that, the ministries of health, local government and education, in conjunction with civic groups, must now work hand in hand in bringing the crisis under some reasonable level of control. Unfortunately, given the now-heightened media attention, many affected are now opting out of seeing a doctor and resort to taking the standard chikungunya-symptoms treatment. This is not only risky, but further understates the impact of chikungunya.
In the end, while personal responsibility is important, the Government must do its job and put a halt to the defensive time-wasting that has only made matters worse.