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EDITORIAL - Why the PM should fire Ferguson

Published:Tuesday | September 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM

If we felt that Fenton Ferguson had the imagination to appreciate the point, we'd suggest that he resign. But he doesn't.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller should, therefore, fire him. But she won't.

So, Dr Ferguson will continue to damage her Government while making it difficult to confront the crisis of the chikungunya virus in Jamaica. The point is that, having been so inept in responding to what ought to have been a relatively routine public-health problem, the health minister has little public trust. The enormity of Dr Ferguson's failure is readily measured by the ease with which he was outfoxed on this issue by the notoriously opportunistic Delano Seiveright, who reaped gratuitous political hay from the matter.

The truth is that it was inevitable that chikungunya would arrive in Jamaica once it reached the Americas 10 months ago. And with no antivirus, or cure for the infection - and with regional populations not having developed immunity to the disease that is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito - it was predictable that its spread here was expected to be almost exponential. It has been. More than three-quarter million people in the Americas are estimated to have been infected with chikungunya, although this may very well be undercounted.

Significantly, relatively few of these infections have been laboratory confirmed. But as Dr Ferguson would be aware, epidemiologists have methods for extrapolating the number of infections in a community and the likely velocity of its spread.

While Dr Ferguson, and no one else, could have prevented the arrival and spread of chikungunya, the health minister had a tool that he might have deployed to slow its rampage through Jamaica and reassure the public: mass mobilisation. There could have been an imaginative engagement of Jamaicans, without creating panic, in projects to reduce the breeding environment of the vector and in treating chikungunya's symptoms.

That it didn't happen is largely the result of personality - Dr Ferguson's. He has overseen the health ministry like a bureaucraton - a cross between a pompous bureaucrat and an automaton.

Misusing statistics

Indeed, in his response to any questions or disquiet about the effects of chikungunya, Dr Ferguson, in the fashion of a Soviet commissar giving statistics on the production of Ladas, told us about the confirmed cases rather than have a real conversation about the potential number of cases or when infections were likely to peak and begin to decline.

The strategy was employed during the minister's broadcast Sunday night: 484 communities and 50,887 premises inspected; 24,206 containers treated ... . Good!

Despite calling citizens to join in a national clean-up day, about which there is no sense of urgency, Minister Ferguson lectured people. He didn't attempt to engage them.

Even how he addressed the problem, which has caused so much debate, calls into question whether Dr Ferguson's apprehension of the matter should have been about more than dodging blame, rather than one that required a frontal response. So, Dr Ferguson spoke of Jamaica experiencing "an increase in the incidence of cases of fever and pain, among them individuals affected with chikungunya".

It should be obvious to Prime Minister Simpson Miller that Dr Ferguson has cost the Government in performance and, ultimately, political support.

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