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The Zika menace

Published: 
Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Aedes Egypti mosquito, the local agent for dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, has added yet another virus to its deadly quiver...Zika. On the face of it, this disease presents symptoms which seem comparatively tame: mild fever, joint aches, rash and red eyes. For any Trini having endured the vise-like torture of dengue and chikungunya, Zika might seem less concerning than a pan semi’s hangover.

There is, however, compelling evidence to suggest the virus may be linked to birth defects with doctors in Brazil observing a spike in cases of microcephaly in newborns. Born with abnormally small heads, these babies, if they survive, are condemned to a life of health complications. 

Thus far an estimated 3,500 cases of microcephalic births have been reported in Brazil. It gets worse. Shortly after the arrival of Zika in Brazil, El Salvador and French Polynesia, their respective health authorities detected an increase in neurological and autoimmune conditions, among them Guillian-Barre syndrome, which can lead to paralysis. 

The World Health Organisation expects the Zika virus to permeate the Americas, having shown up in 21 countries in the Caribbean and North and South America. While scientists are working on providing conclusive links between Zika and these grave health complications, several countries in the region have reacted sharply to the threat, and with good reason.

The nearest vaccine is ten years away so the primary offensive against this public health scourge is two pronged: education and vector eradication. This is of particular importance in countries such as ours where health care delivery is poor. The Aedes Egypti mosquito, and the diseases it carries, thrive best in broadly dysfunctional societies like T&T where public services are in shambles and civic responsibility is an alien concept. 

The Jamaican government has reportedly committed US$1.6 million to their Zika defences. That money is to be used for increased public education, vector control and strengthening of their virology laboratory. Apart from a timely warning from our Minister of Health for vigilance among citizens, it isn’t clear how we are preparing to confront Zika. 

Traditionally, the Insect Vector Control Department deploys its fogging units. This was somewhat in evidence during the chickungunya episode last year, the after effects of which are likely still with many of its victims. Presumably, it is only a matter of time before we see fumigation strikes against adult mosquitoes and their larval progeny. It is reasonable to assume that there are protocols for the proper use of chemicals, minimising the risk of resistance build-up in mosquitoes. 

Health Inspectors normally go house to house in search of potential breeding spots around the home. With criminals masquerading as police officers and even WASA workers, people are probably wary of admitting strangers into their yards. The Ministry should furnish health inspectors with proper uniforms and they should have prominently displayed identification badges. This strategy should be complimented by advertisements of when and where inspections will be conducted. The continued emergence of increasingly virulent mosquito-borne illnesses means we cannot allow uncontrolled crime to victimise us twice. 

It is also time the regional corporations get in the game at the community level. There really isn’t any reason to have standing water in untended drainage. If corporations claim they haven’t the resources to meet such basic needs then there isn’t any need for them to exist at all. 

The Aedes Egypti mosquito needs clean, standing water to breed, an environment which is supplied aplenty by the lax and inconsiderate attitudes of most citizens. Overgrown abandoned lots provide respite for mosquitoes during the heat of the day. 

This means they have shorter distances to travel to us when they emerge to feed. Apart from the sanctuary offered by the tall grasses, unkempt premises also hide receptacles for water such as tyres and old buckets.

What would also be useful is a sustained education campaign. Two or three spots in the newspapers won’t cut it. Assuming that citizens are already up to speed can be as dangerous as the virus itself. While the state must take the lead in preparing the population for this threat, that doesn’t mean citizens can abdicate responsibility to themselves and their communities.

Every person grumbling about a seemingly ill-prepared government probably has a container in the yard collecting water or a rain guttering that hasn’t been cleared of leaf litter in an age. There are simple things that can be done to reduce the risk. The unfashionable, old mosquito net is a fairly effective deterrent. Refusal to do your part is as careless as going to walk around the Queen’s Park Savannah or getting caught outdoors in broad daylight anywhere in this country. In communities where abandoned lots are a perennial hazard, form a pressure group and harangue your regional corporation until they take action. 

Zika is the latest, but with the undeniable effects of climate change, it certainly won’t be the last disease to darken our door. The threat of birth defects and other severe health complications demands a serious, proactive approach from both the Government and the population to this public health menace.

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